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Kids with ADHD: The Storm of Big Emotions

Updated: Nov 26, 2023

It's not a character flaw. It's not purposeful behaviour. It's not manipulation.


teen sticking her tongue out

Disclaimer: The content of this blog post is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Consult a qualified healthcare professional for personalized advice.


ADHD is a neurological disorder that affects the neurotransmitter, Dopamine, in the brain and is a delayed development of the frontal lobe. While it's normal for kids to have big emotions, kids with ADHD experience emotions more intensely. Emotions will overwhelm them easily, without warning, and it will take longer for the emotionality to subside. Daily tasks can be a struggle to complete, as they require executive function skills from that part of the brain, easily leading to meltdowns. Feedback from a teacher, not being chosen as a partner, or kids laughing can be automatically interpreted as rejection or criticism. These are just a few examples of situations that will be followed by an emotional storm. Caregivers often find themselves overwhelmed by their child's emotions and it is not uncommon for the big emotions of ADHD to affect the whole family.


There is no denying having a child with ADHD can be very hard on you, and other family members. Sometimes the child with ADHD gets extremely angry, seems to purposefully annoy their siblings, argues with adults, or is often irritable. Home life can feel stressful and unpredictable. However, punishing the child with ADHD for big emotions isn't fair because emotions aren't something they know how to control yet. Focussing on what you can control is the best place to start. Kids do well when they have the skills a situation requires. If they don't have the skills yet, you will not get the results you want by saying things like:


"You need to try harder," "You should be able to do this," or "What is wrong with you?"


Many clients tell me that BIG emotions are the toughest part of having a kid with ADHD. It is really important to remember emotions are important for social learning and communication with others, so emotional regulation is one of the most valuable skills your child will learn! It is important to remember that emotional regulation is developed over time, through maturity, experiences, reflection, and role modelling. Moving forward, I also encourage you to remember your kid has a developmentally delayed frontal lobe. Take their current age and subtract 3 years and you now know the developmental age of their frontal lobe - this will help you adapt your expectations of their ability to regulate emotions (and use other executive functions).


The good news is you are in the best position to help your child develop emotional awareness and management skills.

Understand ADHD.

Learn about what obstacles lead to big emotions for your child.

Don't take it personally.


Over time, this will help them control their behaviour at home, at school, in future relationships, and in other environments like the workplace.


Difficulty with EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONS will affect Emotions


Children with ADHD have difficulty directing their attention and controlling their impulses, which can result in BIG problems at school and home, therefore leading to BIG emotions.They seem distractible, impulsive or unmotivated and lazy. A child might want to do things all at once — they may finish one task too quickly without checking if it's done properly. At times, the kid with ADHD will find it impossible to finish a task. Kids may also struggle with verbal processing and don't do what has been asked because they actually do not understand the instructions. At home, you might make a request, they nod, walk away, and do something completely different than what you asked! Finally, have you noticed if your kid with ADHD is motivated more by extrinsic rewards? Do you get resistance when you ask them to complete a task simply because it has to be done? PSSST....This is one of the reasons school can be challenging for kids with ADHD - their brains have trouble with the concept, "I have to do this, and I don't know why, but I will do it anyways."


Some children may also have problems with organization — like not being able to keep track of their belongings or get dressed quickly enough for school because they're distracted by something more interesting to their brain: toys, video games, or cellphone are a few examples. This goes hand in hand with a difficulty prioritizing: ADHD will make whatever is interesting, urgent, quick, or fun to be more important than responsibilities. You will see this show up for your kid in a variety of situations, particularly as they get older and expectations and responsibilities increase.


students raising hands in classroom

With the obstacles ADHD symptoms cause up for kids, the expectations of adults in their world, and the ability of their peers to manage easily, it is not a shock that kids with ADHD respond emotionally often. They experience failure, receive negative feedback, and have consequences more often than their peers. Children with ADHD hear 20,000 additional critical or corrective messages before their twelfth birthday when compared with neurotypical children. The amount of mental effort kids with ADHD have to put into each day is significant. By the time the end of the school day comes, their battery is almost drained.


So, they come home grouchy, irritable, or clingy. And... then there's the moment you ask them to do something. BOOM. Emotions explode. They don't have the skills to do what you have asked and they have already faced numerous demands all day at school. What happens when your day has been taxing, you're exhausted, and at the end of the day someone asks you to do something? It is hard to not get emotional, isn't it? The difference between you and your kid is that you have a fully developed frontal lobe, along with years of learning through experiences, that help you self-regulate.


Most importantly, kids don't understand why they can't do well and this leads them to identify with beliefs that make sense about their struggles:


"I am not good at math."

"I hate writing."

"People don't like me."

"I suck at school."

"I am not a good person for talking like that to my _____ (family member)."

"I don't like people."


So yes - your kid may explode easily, argue, become irritable when asked to do non-preferred tasks, or withdraw into their room. Sometimes the child with ADHD gets extremely angry at home and hurts others or themselves, and this can be very hard on caregivers and family members. Home life can feel stressful and unpredictable for everyone. As a result, some parents start tiptoeing around the one with ADHD - as a way to avoid the emotional landmines. Another strategy I have heard parents say they resort to is "tough love," which leads them to be strict, intolerant, and use punishments that are ineffective and unrealistic.


I want you to know controlling your child's emotions won't work. Punishing them for experiencing big emotions isn't effective because it isn't something they know how to control yet. It will only result in your kid feeling bad about themselves. Tiptoeing won't give you the results you want either. And an outpouring of positivity is no solution either.

So, what to do? Your job is to create conditions for them to become self-aware and understand themselves, so that in the future they will be able to manage ADHD from a place of awareness, self-acceptance, and compassion. As you have teachable moments with your kid, neural pathways will develop in their frontal lobe allowing them to gain insight into how their emotions work in certain situations, hence, empowering your kid to start using strategies to support themselves as they age. As the adult, focussing on what you can control is the best place to start.


YOUR AREAS OF CONTROL


MANAGE YOUR EMOTIONS

When big emotions are erupting, your job is to manage your emotions. This is helpful for a few reasons.

  1. It is a teachable moment. You are role modelling for them. It can be an opportunity to make self-regulation a verbal and visual process for them. "I notice my heart is starting to race and a hot face. I feel myself wanting to yell. I don't want to do that, so I am going to walk away and give myself some space to think. I will come back to you later tonight and we can try again." OR "I can't control what you say or do, but I can control how I respond to you. I am going to walk away now and figure out what I would like to say to you. I will come back in 10 minutes."

  2. Your emotions can't be the focus of the interaction because the kid's challenge gets lost in the emotional exchange. The opportunity for support, teaching, or problem solving disappears. The emotions of your child have to be validated and addressed in this moment.

  3. By regulating yourself, you will be able to support them. Conflict won't become a wedge in your relationship.

  4. Your kid's coping mechanism to release emotions through explosive behaviours will decrease as they have lots of opportunities to develop awareness and have your support and acceptance. Explosivity will not become a pattern later on in their life.

LEARN ABOUT ADHD

Each child experiences ADHD differently. Learning about symptoms of ADHD that create obstacles for your child is another aspect that is directly under your control. Get informed so you know how ADHD shows up, then sit down with your kid and talk about the symptoms and obstacles that arise for them. Knowing you understand what happens for them will help reduce the emotional storms, too.

  1. Ask your kid to pick the one symptom that seems most impactful.

  2. Deconstruct it with them - get really curious about what, when, where, with who, and how the obstacle comes up.

  3. See if your kid can think of one or two solutions to try out. Do they need a routine? A system? A tool? You can support them with these. Your kid needs to know you are on their side, that you believe in their innate goodness, and that you are there to support, scaffold, and hold boundaries with love and acceptance.

CREATE CONNECTION

When a kid comes home at the end of the school day, parents instinctively jump into commands that make their life easier: "Get your backpack unloaded." "Where's your homework?" "Do the dishwasher." Before you do this, try to remember your kid has listened to commands and demands all day. The most influential thing your kid needs most after school is connection with you or another caregiver (even if it seems like they don't want to, they really do!).

  1. Snacks, water, and chatting, even for 15-20 minutes, is very restorative for their taxed nervous system.

  2. Teens often want to disappear into their rooms, on their phones. This is NOT connection. If your teen really wants to decompress first, you might say, "okay, I hear you need some time to yourself. Would it work to sit and chat for 10 minutes, then you can have some alone time?

  3. Collaborate with your kid to create an after school routine that starts with connection.


I have only included a few suggestions and naturally, parenting a kid with ADHD is much more involved. I encourage you to seek out resources and support wherever you can. Get started on educating yourself about ADHD so you can see your child through a different lens. It will help you navigate big emotions that can start to dominate the household and lead you to support them effectively!


Foster acceptance for who your kid is, not who you want them to be. With this new perspective, you are much more equipped to offer support so your kid can work on managing ADHD without worrying about how much you love them. You will create a strong relationship that will last into their adulthood.



Do you have other questions about ADHD? Submit them to DEAR ROLYNDA and I will do my best to answer. Anonymity is guaranteed :)



Thanks for being here,


Rolynda Simpson M.Ed, CCC

ADHD Clinical Services Provider




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