Kids with ADHD lag behind their peers by 30 percent when it comes to emotional development, according to research conducted by ADHD researcher and psychologist Russell Barkley, Ph.D. So a 10-year-old child may really have the maturity level of a 7-year-old.

As clinical psychologist Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D, noted in this piece, kids with ADHD aren’t being defiant when they’re having an emotional outburst. They can’t help that their brains are wired this way.

“Scans of the brain have shown that the activity of the cingulate gyrus appears to be lower in people with ADHD,” said Cindy Goldrich, Ed.M., ACAC, an ADHD parent coach, mental health counselor and teacher trainer. This region of the brain is “responsible for the regulation of behavior, attention and emotion.”

Goldrich noted that some kids with ADHD have a quick temper. Some avoid uncomfortable situations (e.g., “I don’t feel well” or “I have to go to the bathroom”). And some shut down completely, and thereby might seem highly sensitive or over-reactive, she said.

It isn’t that your child’s emotions are inappropriate. It’s how your child expresses their emotions that tends to be problematic, Goldrich said. Unfortunately, many parents miss this distinction and instead of focusing on the root cause of their child’s emotions, they focus on their behavior.

Many parents employ strict tactics. They want to “send a message that their child ‘cannot get away’ with certain behaviors.” But while negative consequences may squelch bad behavior, they don’t equip your child with appropriate coping skills, said Goldrich, founder of PTSCoaching.

In fact, in some cases, parents unknowingly increase their child’s misbehavior and defiance. This can happen when parents expect their kids to do something they don’t have the skills to do in the moment, said Goldrich, also author of the book 8 Keys to Parenting Children with ADHD.

She shared this example: A parent tells their child to “Hurry up and get ready.” However, their child “is having trouble processing what needs to be done at a quick pace and has trouble getting organized, judging the time properly or even just getting started.” Telling or yelling at your child to hurry up only leads them to become more overwhelmed, frazzled and overstimulated, sparking an emotional outburst.

What can you do instead?

Goldrich stressed the importance of collaboration and conversation. She recommended the following:

  • “Slow down and really try to understand your child’s concern before you respond with an answer or decision.” In other words, what underlies their outburst?
  • Teach your child the language of emotions. For instance, you might teach them to use these sentences to share how they’re really feeling: “When you do this, I feel that” and “When this happens, I feel…” Goldrich shared these examples: “When you change the plans, I get very frustrated and angry.” “When you tell me to turn the TV off, I get upset because I want to keep watching the program.” “When the dog keeps barking, it makes me forget what I was thinking.”
  • Work together, and help your child develop skills. As Goldrich said, “Remember, the goal is not always just compliance; often it’s skill building.” For instance, if mornings tend to be hectic, brainstorm with your child about what triggers the chaos, along with what can help. Talk about the changes you can make together.
  • Examine whether there are “’typical’ times when arguments or disagreements happen,” Goldrich said. Does your child get upset around the same time during the day? What usually precipitates these outbursts? Are outbursts more frequent or intense when your child hasn’t slept enough or eaten in a while? “Address these situations at a different time when things are calm.”

For parents (or anyone working with kids with ADHD), it’s important to have a full understanding of ADHD. Because kids with ADHD aren’t trying to be defiant. They often don’t have the ability or the skills to regulate their emotions. And as a parent, that’s where you can make a critical difference.

Homework photo available from Shutterstock