Children with a diagnosis of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are hard wired to have difficulty regulating their attention as well as their behaviors and moods. In fact, they often encounter problems that are a result of the symptoms of the disorder. They display different clusters of symptoms: those that are linked primarily to inattentiveness and distractibility, those that are linked to motor restlessness or hyperactivity, and those that are linked to impulsivity. A person can receive a diagnosis of ADHD Predominantly Inattentive Presentation, ADHD Predominantly Hyperactive/Impulsive Presentation, or ADHD Combined Presentation depending on the symptoms of that particular person.

In addition to these clusters of symptoms, people with ADHD can also struggle with anxiety, depression, and anger management. Emotional regulation can be an ongoing challenge for children with ADHD. Adults sometimes think that if we give children medication and accommodations, that should solve the problem, however, medication alone is not enough. We also need to help them learn skills to regulate their emotions.

The skills that are needed to regulate one’s emotions are the same skills that these children struggle with. You must be able to:

  • stop and think
  • be aware of internal cues
  • associate those cues with a name and label the feelings
  • remember the strategies that have worked previously to handle the feelings and select one of them to use in current situations

The skills listed above require executive functions, which are often lagging in children diagnosed with ADHD. Executive functions occur in the front part of the brain that acts like a CEO, directing the rest of the operations of the brain. These functions include self-awareness, self-control, and self-motivation as well as the ability to use inner-directed speech to control and modify one’s own behavior.

There are several steps involved in helping your child learn how to regulate emotions:

  1.  He needs to become aware that he is having a feeling. Many children have told me that their feelings come out of nowhere: “I go from zero to sixty.” Upon discretion, it becomes clear that the feelings have been mounting up all day, without the child noticing. One child I know had a major meltdown once after school. It seemed to come out of nowhere. Later, it turned out that he had a terrible day at school, failed a test, and got in a fight with his friends. When he got home he learned that his sister had gotten straight A’s on her report card and was having a play date. He was unaware of how increasingly upset he was becoming. Helping your child build awareness of feelings as he has them can help.
  2. She must learn to recognize the physical sensations and attach and name to those feelings. For example, when a child feels anxious she may feel like she has butterflies in her stomach. She may feel jittery and shaky. When a child begins to feel angry she may feel like fighting or breaking things. People sometimes describe feelings in colors. When we are angry sometimes we feel red hot. When we are sad we might say we feel blue. Talk with your child about how different emotions can cause physical sensations. Ask her how her body feels when she is nervous, scared, happy, or frustrated.
  3. The ability to understand common triggers for these feelings is also necessary. One young man clearly identified his triggers: “I get tired and I lose stuff. Every time the teacher calls on me there is a 25 percent chance I’ll get the right answer. I don’t like it when all the other kids have finished their tests and I’m still working. I get distracted. They do fun things and I didn’t finish my test and I’ll get all the last answers wrong because I’m distracted.” You can help your child learn to understand his triggers once he has calmed down. You can do this by helping him walk backwards through the day in his mind. What happened after school, during school and before school?
  4. She needs to learn to recognize the feelings as they increase. Using a ladder or a picture of a volcano can be helpful to write in the different words that might be used for different levels of emotions. For example, one might be irritated, then frustrated, then annoyed, angry, furious, enraged, and finally ballistic. It really isn’t going from zero to sixty when you stop and think about it, even though it may feel that way.
  5. Help the child learn some ways to calm down and relax. Research has shown that taking deep breaths actually calms the emotion center of the brain. Meditation is a wonderful thing to learn, as is yoga. Drawing, painting, listening to music, taking a hot bath or shower, going for a walk or bike ride, other forms of exercise or talking to someone are all ways to calm down.
  6. Once your child has found what helps him feel better, it is important to take steps to calm down when the upset feeling is just starting. Think of a burner on a stove. If you turn the flame up the water boils. It is important to learn to turn the dial down before his feelings boil over! Encourage your child to write a list of things that help him calm down and post it in a place where he will see it. Having a cooling off place to go can be a really good idea.

People who manage feelings well tend to do better in school, jobs later in life, and get along better with people. Helping your child learn these skills is one of the utmost important jobs a parent can do.

by Judith M. Glasser, PhD

This Article's Author

Judith M. Glasser, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who has worked with children and their families for over 30 years. She specializes in the assessment and treatment of AD/HD in children. For many years Dr. Glasser has been interested in the different kinds of difficulties children experience when they have AD/HD. Many of the children she works with have difficulty understanding how other people think and feel; this book is for them. Dr. Glasser is also the author, with Kathleen Nadeau, PhD, of Learning to Feel Good and Stay Cool (Magination Press, 2014).

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