By Thomas E. Brown, Ph.D.
At a Glance
- Kids with ADHD feel the same emotions as their peers.
- Emotions are more intense with ADHD and impact everyday living.
- ADHD makes it hard to manage emotions.
If your child has ADHD, you probably know about the major symptoms. Trouble focusing.Impulsivity. And in some cases, hyperactivity. But many kids with ADHD share another symptom that often isnâ€™t mentioned. They have trouble managing their emotions.
There are official criteria that doctors use to diagnose ADHD. Trouble with emotions isnâ€™t one of them. But researchers and professionals who treat kids with ADHD often report thatemotions play a big role in the daily difficulties kids face.
Kids with ADHD donâ€™t have different emotions from most of their peers. They feel hurt, anger, sadness, discouragement, laziness and worry just like everyone else does.
What is different for many kids with ADHD is that these feelings seem to be more frequent and intense. They also seem to last longer. And they get in the way of everyday life.
What Trouble With Emotion Looks Like
When kids have trouble managing their emotions, it can show up in different ways. Some might be unable to put the brakes on their feelings when theyâ€™re angry or stressed about something. Others might struggle to get revved up to do something when theyâ€™re feeling bored.
Kids with ADHD, more than most others their age, may also:
- Be quick to get frustrated by minor annoyances
- Worry too much or too long about even small things
- Have trouble calming down when annoyed or angry
- Feel wounded or take offense at even gentle criticism
- Feel excessive urgency to get something they want immediately
Consider how that might play out:
You hear your 11-year-old screaming at her younger brother. She comes running to find you and shouts about what heâ€™s done. It turns out heâ€™s made some comment about her hair. She wants you to punish him, and she gets mad when you donâ€™t react. Then she complains all night long about how unfair that is.
Hereâ€™s another potential scenario:
Your 15-year-old has a ton of homework. But he doesnâ€™t sit down to do it. Instead, he spends the afternoon texting with friends. Youâ€™ve already tried using consequences to try to motivate him to do his work. He just says itâ€™s boring and acts like he doesnâ€™t care. Nothing makes him stop what heâ€™s doing and get moving on the homework.
Why Kids With ADHD Struggle With Emotions
How people feel and handle emotions starts in infancy. Some babies are just naturally quick to startle while others are generally calm and less reactive.
Some tend to get irritated easily. Theyâ€™re quick to cry and slow to calm down. Other babies are not easily upset and are quickly calmed.
The basic temperaments people have at birth influence how they behave from the start. They may change a quite a bitâ€”or not that muchâ€”as kids grow up.
Like their peers, kids with ADHD arenâ€™t all alike in their temperaments. Some are more laid back or timid. Others are more reactive, outspoken and aggressive.
But often, they donâ€™t have the same capacity to manage their emotions as other kids their age. They have less ability to react to their own emotions using their brainâ€™s reasoning powers.
Kids with ADHD typically have trouble with working memory (along with otherexecutive functions). And that makes it very hard for them to keep the bigger picture in mind. They tend to get stuck in whatever theyâ€™re feeling in that moment.
As they grow up, most kids who donâ€™t have ADHD learn how to manage their emotions so they donâ€™t get too caught up in them. If they begin to feel too angry or hurt, they learn to say to themselves, â€œCalm down, chill outâ€”this doesnâ€™t have to be such a big deal.â€
If theyâ€™re getting too discouraged trying to do something, they might be able to tell themselves, â€œOK, that doesnâ€™t look like itâ€™s going to work. Iâ€™ll try again or will try to find better way to deal with it.â€
Kids with ADHD are slower to develop those processes (and many other aspects of their executive functions). It takes longer for them to gain the ability to calm down and get perspective. So theyâ€™re more likely to get too wrapped up in their own emotions.
As a result, they may:
- Be overwhelmed with discouragement, frustration or anger
- Be too fearful to begin tasks
- Give up too quickly on whatever theyâ€™re doing
- Be reluctant to get started on something they ought to be doing
- Avoid interacting with others
In other words, their immediate emotion of the moment takes over all of their thinking.
How You Can Help
When your child is struggling with his feelings, it may seem like thereâ€™s no way to get through to him or to stop his behaviors. But there are things you can do to help him get control of and manage his emotions.
Start by acknowledging how he seems to be feeling. â€œI can see how disappointed you are about coming in second in the science fair.â€ Donâ€™t argue about whether he should be feeling this way. That usually just escalates the problem.
Once heâ€™s calm, offer to help him figure out some better way to deal with that emotionâ€”one that might help him switch his thinking. For example, you could say:
- â€œI know youâ€™re upset and just want to leave the science fair and go home. But Iâ€™m proud of what you did.â€
- â€œI know you worked hard on it and a lot of the people who looked at it seemed impressed. Even though you feel really disappointed about getting second place rather than first, you still have good reason to be proud of what you did.â€
If your child often struggles with managing emotions, it can be a good idea to talk with his doctor. You may want to discuss having your child see a counselor or try taking ADHD medication. Having some counseling and well-tuned medication may help improve his ability to manage his emotions more effectively.
- Kids with ADHD are slow to develop the ability to manage emotions.
- Trouble with working memory plays a role in this.
- The emotion kids with ADHD feel in the moment can dominate their thinking.
Article originally appeared on Understood.org. Understood.orgÂ a non-commercial website that has lots of information for parents of children and young adults with learning and/or attention issues.