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Understanding Intense Emotions & ADHD

If we try to picture the 'stereotypical' child with ADHD, we may think of the child who can't sit still, is very fidgety and impulsive. Whilst some children with ADHD may display these features, there is an aspect to ADHD that is often overlooked; they are on frequent emotional rollercoasters. ADHD doesn't just affect behaviour - it also takes a huge toll on a child's emotions. You may have noticed that children with ADHD can have extreme reactions to situations and display very intense emotions. This article should hopefully help you understand where this comes from and how we can help these child regulate themselves and express themselves effectively.




Children with ADHD often experience their emotions more intensely than their peers. Dr. Russell Barkley, a leading ADHD expert, when asked how ADHD affects emotions, remarked that kids with ADHD show “lower frustration tolerance, impatience, quickness to anger, and greater emotional reactivity.” This is not because these children are trying to be difficult; their brains are wired differently!


How Do Children with ADHD Feel Emotions Differently?


Rapid Fire Emotions

Children with ADHD often quickly shift from one emotion to another. They might laugh one minute and cry the next, leaving parents and teachers perplexed.


Intensity

The emotions of ADHD kids are often turned up a few notches. What’s considered a minor disappointment to their peers may lead to an intense outburst.


Emotion Recognition

Sometimes, children with ADHD struggle to recognize and understand their emotions, making it hard for them to make sense of and communicate what they’re feeling.


The Challenge of Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is the ability to manage behaviours, emotions, and thoughts, adapting them according to the situation. Children with ADHD can often really struggle with self-regulation and here's why;


  • Impulsivity; children can often act on their emotions before they think and this can often lead to regret later on.

  • Delayed social-emotional development; children with ADHD lag behind their peers in terms of social-emotional development. While their friends might be developing skills to handle conflicts or frustrations, children with ADHD might still be learning the basics. This lag leads to situations where they feel out of sync with their peers, leading to potential misunderstandings and feelings of isolation.

  • Executive Dysfunction; Central to ADHD is the concept of executive dysfunction, which affects skills like planning, organization, and time management. This can make it harder for children with ADHD to anticipate future events, sequence tasks, or recognize potential pitfalls. When it comes to emotions, this means they might struggle with foreseeing the consequences of their emotional reactions, leading to difficulties in self-regulating.

  • Problem Solving Difficulties; Tied into executive dysfunction is the challenge of problem-solving. A child without ADHD might feel upset but can often brainstorm a few potential ways to handle that emotion. In contrast, a child with ADHD might feel stuck, overwhelmed by the emotion, and unsure of how to proceed.


These challenges can often make the world feel a very unpredictable place and their intense, up-and-down emotions are not due to carelessness, but rather an integral part of their ADHD. With the right support, understanding, and interventions, these children can learn to navigate their emotions and self-regulation challenges more effectively.




Self-Regulation Techniques for Children with ADHD


We all feel big emotions at times, but us adults often have the benefit of many years of practice and self-regulatory techniques that can help us navigate those. For children, these big emotions are far harder to understand and manage.


Here are a few techniques that I have often used to help children with ADHD learn how to self-regular their emotions;


Validate their Feelings

Emotions can be confusing and overwhelming, especially for a child with ADHD. Imagine a whirlwind of feelings, each more intense than the last, with little understanding of why they occur. The first step in helping is to validate those feelings.


Validation is more than just saying "I get it, I understand" - it is showing genuine empathy and acknowledging their emotions without judgement and expressing you can truly understand what they may be feeling. Validation is creating that safe environment for children to express themselves without fear of judgement or consequence, and allowing them to do so freely making them feel valued and heard. One effective way to validate emotions is through emotion coaching.


Emotional Literacy

Before managing emotions, children need to recognize and name them. This is where emotional literacy comes in. Emotional literacy is the ability to recognize, understand, express, and manage emotions, as well as the ability to identify and respond appropriately to the emotions of others.


Some tools you can use to help teach emotional literacy include;

  • Zones of Regulation; a complete social-emotional learning curriculum created to teach children self-regulation and emotional control.

  • Emotion Flashcards; Cards with faces depicting different emotions. Kids can sort through them, choosing the one that best represents their current mood.

  • Feelings Journal/Tracker; Having a journal, diary, or log book can be a safe place where they can vent their frustrations and emotions. It can also be a way of sharing and discussing feelings that they have been having.

  • Books About Emotions; the brain activity that occurs when we read fiction is very similar to experiencing that situation in real life. This means reading about a situation or concept helps children work out how to solve it in reality. Some of my personal favourites include All About Feelings, Daisy's Dragons and The Worrysaurus.


Children who are able to recognise and label emotions typically;

  • Do better in school

  • Display fewer behavioural difficulties

  • Are more empathetic towards others

  • Have a positive self-image

  • Develop healthy coping mechanisms

  • Have better and healthier relationships

  • Have better mental health


Mindfulness

The space between feeling an emotion and then acting on it can be very short for children with ADHD, meaning they may often act impulsively or in ways that they don't truly mean as they haven't had the time to process the potential consequences or the actual feeling itself. Mindfulness acts as a buffer and lengthens that space, allowing time for processing.


Examples of how you can use mindfulness in the classroom include teaching breathing techniques or doing guided meditations. These techniques can help children learn to calm their nervous system and centre themselves. Over time, children will learn to go to these techniques when they are feeling overwhelmed, anxious or stressed rather than less productive behaviours.




Setting Boundaries

It is important for children to learn empathy and to recognise emotions, but it is also vitally important that we set boundaries. Boundaries help children understand that while their emotions are valid, there are appropriate and inappropriate ways to express them. It also helps them accurately predict consequences and develop self-control. This distinction is crucial for their social development.


Consistency is vital. If a certain behaviour is inappropriate today, it should be inappropriate tomorrow. Clear, consistent feedback helps children internalise these boundaries.


Emotional journeys can be complex, especially for children with ADHD. But with a better understanding of how ADHD affects emotions, patience, and the strategies above, we can help these young individuals navigate their feelings, setting the stage for a brighter, more emotionally balanced future.


The key is to remember that every child – ADHD or not – is unique. What works for one might not work for another. It’s a journey of understanding, patience, and continuous learning.

When we acknowledge and address the emotional dimension of ADHD, we’re not just helping children manage their feelings. We’re also setting the stage for them to grow into self-aware, empathetic, and resilient adults.








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