Many children and teens with ADHD struggle with emotional regulation, or the ability to recognize and control emotions and associated behaviors. When emotions run high, it tends to have a “flooding” effect on the brain, crowding out all other information, and resulting in angry outbursts, meltdowns, or withdrawal. The ability to regulate our emotions isn’t something we’re born knowing how to do but rather a set of skills that must be learned. Here are some tips on how to help your child develop the necessary skills to manage big emotions.
Help your child develop their emotional vocabulary
A critical aspect of emotional regulation is the ability to identify and name your emotions. You have to name them to tame them, as we say in coaching. Parents will often tell their child to “use their words” during a meltdown but children must first develop their emotional vocabulary. Helping your child to identify and label their emotions not only helps them manage big feelings but it allows them to better understand the emotions of others as well.
Here are some ways to help your child build their emotion vocabulary…
-Check in with and talk to your child about how they are feeling throughout the day: “I know you really wanted that toy and now your face looks sad. Do you feel sad and disappointed?”
-Set an example by talking to your child about your emotions as well. Sometimes I’ll catch my 3-year-old daughter watching me when I’m upset or irritated over something and I’ll say, “Mama’s just feeling really frustrated right now” or “I’m feeling sad but I’ll be okay; I just need to cry”.
-Use movie characters, books, or people in everyday life as conversation starters. Ask your child how they think a certain character is feeling and why.
Teach your child to pay attention to their “early-warning system”
Children and teens with ADHD often have difficulty with emotional regulation because big feelings can quickly overwhelm and overpower them, causing meltdowns, tantrums, and blowups. The good news is, while emotional overwhelm can feel like it comes out of nowhere, our bodies and environment send us signals that can act as an early-warning system.
When your stomach growls, chances are you’re hungry, so you have a sandwich. Similarly, our body sends us signals when we have an emotional response. For example, you might feel tension in your shoulders when you’re frustrated or butterflies in your stomach when you’re nervous. Helping your child or teen to identify these signals can help them pause in the moment and choose an appropriate coping strategy BEFORE their emotions get the better of them. Certain situations, people, and environments can act as triggers as well. Knowing what those triggers are can help you and your child plan ahead and avoid potential meltdowns.
Here are some tips for helping your child develop their “early warning system”…
-Ask your child or teen how their body feels when they experience different emotions- tense, restless, tingly, cold, hot, jittery, tight, etc. These are the cues that will let your child know that they need to pause and choose a coping strategy or action plan.
-It can be helpful to work with your child or teen on creating a 1 to 5 rating scale for their emotions. For example, a 1 might be cool and collected and a 5 might be complete and total meltdown. Talk to your child about what sensations, cues, and scenarios are associated with each rating. Using a rating scale can not only help your child learn to distinguish between being mildly frustrated and blindly angry but also when to utilize coping strategies in the early stages to prevent emotional overwhelm.
Help your child develop coping strategies and problem-solving skills
When our kids are upset, we may say things like, “Calm down” or “Get it together”. The trouble is that your child likely has no idea how to actually do those things. As parents, we need to help our children develop coping and problem-solving skills so that they know how to navigate big emotions.
Here are some tips on how to help your child develop these crucial skills…
-Brainstorm with your child to come up coping strategies for various situations. What can you do when you’re frustrated, angry, sad, bored, nervous, etc.? Create a chart with fun pictures that they can use as a reference when emotions run high. Start with what your child already loves to do. Ask them what makes them feel happy, relaxed, joyful, and calm. If you need ideas and inspiration, there are so many great books, apps, and games available that can help your child learn coping strategies like mindfulness and deep breathing.
-If there is a particular situation your child is anxious about or that you know can be triggering for him or her, work with them to come up with a plan. Role playing can be a fun way to help them practice the plan before they put it into action.
-Help your child or teen create a calm down or coping skills toolbox with items and strategies they can use when they are feeling emotionally overwhelmed.
Emotional regulation is a critical life skill. Keep in mind though, like any other skill, it requires time and practice to develop. Make it a point to support your child by giving him or her the tools and the opportunity to practice what they’ve learned. Doing so will help them develop the ability to successfully navigate and cope with big emotions throughout childhood and into adulthood.