Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) often have a constellation of symptoms including inattention, impulsivity, difficulty focusing, and hyperactivity. For many children, there is another symptom that is often overlooked: managing emotions. Despite its prevalence among children and teens with ADHD, it is not one of the diagnostic criteria of ADHD.
Children with ADHD have emotions just like any other child- happiness, sadness, hurt, discouragement, and worry. What can be different is the frequency and intensity of the emotions. The fallout from the emotions can last longer and get in the way of life. Children often act on these emotions without the chance to filter them or decide if their response is appropriate. The emotional reaction often doesn’t match the size or seriousness of the trigger.
The ADHD brain does not have the capacity to manage these emotions the same way as their non-ADHD peers. One possible reason is that they have less ability to react to their emotions due to their brain’s reasoning powers. Another possibility is because working memory is impaired in the ADHD brain, it makes is hard for them to see the big picture. They get stuck in what they are feeling right now. Kids with ADHD can be slower to develop the ability to calm themselves down and gain perspective. This can lead to:
- Becoming overwhelmed with anger, frustration, or discouragement
- Giving up quickly on what they are doing
- Being reluctant to start something new
- Avoiding interactions with others
What Should You Do?
For many parents and caregivers, it helps to know that managing emotions is more difficult for children with ADHD. This can sometimes help you plan for them and be prepared to help when you see your child having a difficult time managing his or her emotions.
Witnessing these emotional blow ups can make you think there’s no way to get through to them or stop the negative thoughts that often accompany the emotional explosions. A good first step when you witness this is to acknowledge how they are feeling. Try not to tell them they shouldn’t feel that way. This can often escalate the emotions. As an example, you could say “I know you are upset you didn’t win” instead of “There’s no reason to be upset just because you came in second.” Once they have calmed, try to change what they are thinking about. Point out how proud you are of their performance, or how other people clapped or cheered for them.
If your child is having trouble managing their emotions despite ADHD treatment, it may be best to talk to your child’s doctor or child psychiatrist. Dr. Priti Kothari, MD is a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist in the Boca Raton, Palm Beach, and Parkland area who specializes in ADHD diagnosis and treatment. To schedule an initial or follow up appointment, call her office at (561) 483-0844. In the meantime, more information about ADHD and the intense emotions children can experience, often termed self regulation, can be found on the CHAAD website at https://chadd.org.