Emotional dysregulation is one of the most common features in both adults and children with ADHD.
And the meltdowns, tantrums, tears and emotional flooding cause significant stress. As a result, emotional dysregulation is one of the most motivating reasons that people seek out ADHD support for themselves or their kid.
If you’ve ever witnessed your child go from zero to 100 and feel completely out of control, you’ll know how distressing explosive emotions can be.
Big fiery emotions are not just unpleasant for the person experiencing them, but also have a significant ripple effect into family life. Parents and spouses walk on egg shells and fear holding consistent boundaries. Siblings learn to “manage” their brother or sister with ADHD because it’s just easier that way.
When we develop the skills to manage intense feelings, we also unlock a key skill to living peacefully with ADHD and restoring calm to home life.
In this post I’ll outline strategies so you can help yourself - and your child - feel more in charge when big feelings bubble up.
What is emotional dysregulation and why is it a problem for people with ADHD?
While not being part of the diagnostic criteria, emotional dyresugulation is common feature of all three types of ADHD. In fact, around 70% of adults and 80% of children with ADHD report struggles with emotional regulation.
The top three traits associated with ADHD are impulsivity, hyperactivity and inattentiveness. So why do so many kids and adults with ADHD struggle with explosive emotions?
There is a wide body of research that shows critical differences in the brains of people with ADHD. These differences explain a propensity towards frustration and anger and reduced ability to delay rewards. (You can read more about the neuroscience of this here, if you have a judgmental family member to educate!)
People with ADHD are more likely to experience emotional flooding and to take action, without modulating these powerful feelings with other information.
ADHD severity and emotional dysregulation are highly correlated. This means that those with more severe ADHD tend to experience more emotional regulation problems.
The effect of ADHD emotional dysregulation on family life
Emotional dysregulation is also the feature of ADHD that can put the greatest stress on families, as they deal with an explosive child. Many parents report tip-toeing around their ADHD children, not wanting to trigger a huge emotional reaction that can be incredibly stressful and disruptive for the entire family.
Add to this the strong heredity of ADHD, where a parent of an ADHD child is highly likely to be affected by ADHD themselves, diagnosed or otherwise. This makes for a cocktail of highly charged family interactions.
How to take charge of ADHD emotional dysregulation
Healthy habits - sleep, exercise, sunlight, regular meals
Always start with the basics. Managing big emotions becomes that much harder when you or your child are tired or hungry. Develop a solid bedtime routine (for grown-ups too!), and eat meals and regular snacks at around the same time. This becomes especially important to keep an eye on when on ADHD stimulant medications that suppress appetite. Start to notice triggers for getting “hangry” and schedule small snacks before the horse has bolted.
Aerobic exercise and complex full body movements (like squats, gymnastic movements, or even pushing against a wall) have been shown to have positive effects on emotional regulation and inhibitory control in kids and adults.
Keep an eye on sensory overload to avoid meltdowns
While you’re at it, be very aware of your and your child’s need for downtime. People with ADHD have an even greater need for time away from noise, stimulation, and, yes, screens. If you notice that you or your child are getting generally ratty, irritable or grumpy, lowering the volume on all the senses can help prevent an explosive meltdown.
You know what to look for. Low frustration tolerance, that feeling that you’re about to boil over or just being a little bit snappier than normal.
Expand emotional vocabulary
A broader awareness of the full spectrum of emotions we experience daily helps us better understand and process our feelings in a healthy way. Labelling the feelings that don’t feel great can, over time, help you disengage from them and observe them more objectively.
This is a real challenge for a lot of people with ADHD and takes a lot more practice, thanks to highly volatile sensitivity to emotional triggers. It can be tricky to identify that emotion before it explodes into that complete “flipping the lid” experience that many of us witness in our kids, and ourselves!
You are doing yourself and your children a big favour if you can simply start to name out loud the emotions you’re experiencing – without judgment, and without trying to fix them. It will feel clunky at first, but will feel more natural with practice.
It starts with statements as simple as “I’m sad/angry/disappointed/restless/bored/happy." Noticing subtle shifts in your emotional state and sitting with uncomfortable feelings with acceptance is an important step to building emotional resilience.
Models like Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions can be a great way to expand emotional literacy and accept the need to experience the full range of emotions.
Front line stimulation medications used in the treatment of ADHD have some effect on emotional regulation, though the effect is not as marked as their improvement on impulsivity, inattentiveness and hyperactivity.
The right medication prescribed by your psychiatrist or paediatrician can be one of the tools to help reduce the impact of emotional dysregulation.
Get help, get it early and get it often! Support looks different for everyone. For some, it may mean increasing their sense of connectedness to others by joining a support group, turning to a friend or enlisting help around the house to lighten the load.
Seeking the help of a psychologist, therapist or counsellor can provide tremendous help if you’re suffering the effects of emotional dysregulation. These professionals use proven strategies like cognitive behaviour therapy and mindfulness to give you the tools to soothe yourself.
Please ask your GP for a referral and don’t hesitate to get this kind of support. It can really make all the difference.
How an ADHD coach can help with ADHD emotional dysregulation
An ADHD coach can help you build the skills to notice your emotional triggers and reactions. We'll explore the stressors, limiting beliefs and even rejection sensitivity that may underpin them. Looking at your executive function strengths and weaknesses with an ADHD coach will also help you learn how to respond to difficult situations without meltdowns or explosive reactions.
Some of the skills we work on in coaching that help support emotional regulation include:
- Response inhibition (taking a pause before you act)
- Working memory (drawing upon past learnings to help you respond appropriately in the moment.
- Stress tolerance (your ability to withstand high pressure situations)
- Flexibility (being able to adapt and redirect when things don’t go to plan)
- Organisation (unsurprisingly, a lot of stress is caused for people with ADHD simply by things being a bit upside down and all over the place)
An ADHD coach can also support you with effective parenting strategies to reduce the significant stress of parenting a child with ADHD.