On the outside, when a child with ADHD is having an outburst, it might look like they’re misbehaving on purpose. They’re kicking, screaming, crying and throwing their toys. Or maybe it’s the opposite: They’ve completely shut down.
But there is nothing intentional about these behaviors. Kids don’t want to get angry or act out. “Their brains are actually wired to [over-react],” said Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in ADHD. For instance, research has found that the anterior cingulate cortex isn’t as equally activated in ADHD brains as it is in non-ADHD brains, he said. This area of the brain is responsible for monitoring the limbic system, or the brain’s emotion center.
“Less activity in the anterior cingulate cortex is associated with poor emotional regulation, frustration, impatience and over-reactivity,” Olivardia said.
Plus, regulating our emotions is actually a complex process, which requires specific abilities and skills. It requires “impulse control, inhibition, an ability to quickly self-soothe and being able to shift your attention away from a negative emotion,” Olivardia said. Kids with ADHD have trouble with all of this, he explained.
Understandably, many parents may be at their wit’s end with their child’s emotional outbursts. They might try all sorts of techniques, which either don’t help or even backfire. For instance, physical punishment is ineffective in managing emotions, Olivardia said. Telling a child they’re being “childish,” “ridiculous” or a “drama queen” only shames them, intensifies their negative emotions and makes your child feel as though they’re crazy, he said.
Instead, Olivardia encourages parents to refocus on tools they can teach their kids. Because when your child is having an emotional outburst what they really need are the right tools. In fact, he suggested thinking “of these moments as your child begging you to give them tools.”
Below, Olivardia shared five tips for helping your child regulate their emotions.
Teach them to practice deep breathing.
Deep breathing calms the body and gives us some distance from our emotions. This piece includes an exercise using bubbles and a video on 4-7-8 breathing. (It also features two other exercises for helping kids with anxiety.)
If your child can’t talk through their emotions in the moment, help them pick something stimulating, soothing or distracting, said Olivardia, also a clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. This might be listening to music or playing a video game. It might be a strong sensory stimulus — such as an ice cube.
“For example, for children whose emotions are volatile, holding an ice cube in each hand until they melt can be a grounding, soothing activity. It is hard not to attend to the sensation of an ice cube melting in your hand.” And it helps your child shift away from the intensity of the emotion, he said. This “allows for more clarity and rational thinking.”
“Emotions have energy,” Olivardia said. And sometimes it’s too hard to just calm down. This is when it helps to redirect the energy in a positive direction, he said. You might suggest your child runs, does jumping jacks or dances, or anything else that raises their heart rate.
Create a flowchart.
“When we feel emotions so intensely, it can be difficult to articulate what we are feeling, why we are feeling it and how it graduated to the level it currently stands,” Olivardia said. A flow chart helps your child to identify the primary emotion underneath their outburst.
Olivardia suggested starting your flow chart with the event, thought, situation or interaction that triggered your child’s negative emotion. It might’ve been a bad grade, an argument with a friend or anxiety about an oral book report. Then ask: “How did you feel?” or “What did that lead to?”
For instance, getting a bad grade led your child to think they’re “dumb,” and their frustration about school peaked. Then ask what that led to. Your child might say: “‘Well if I am going to fail, why try?’ which led to a feeling of hopelessness, which can lead to anger toward parents.”
Also, ask your child to rate their emotions from 1 to 10 at the beginning of the situation and where they are now, Olivardia said. Then have them try a strategy, such as moving their bodies or practicing deep breathing. Ask them to rate their emotions again. This helps your child to “see concretely that they can, in fact, do something to regulate their emotions and feel better. They have more control than they think they do. They just need the tools.”
Prioritize eating and sleeping.
Making sure your child is sleeping and eating nutrient-rich foods is essential for emotional regulation, Olivardia said. “Sleep deprivation and poor nutrition have been associated with lower frustration tolerance, higher emotionality, less ability to soothe and being more easily triggered by events.”
Again, kids with ADHD don’t over-react or have emotional outbursts on purpose. Being so emotionally dysregulated is just as unpleasant for them as it is for parents. The great news is that you can teach your kids effective tools to manage their emotions — which benefits your kids and you.
Tantrum photo available from Shutterstock