At a glance
Many kids with ADHD feel very bad when they upset others.
Kids with ADHD often have trouble managing emotions.
There are ways to help your child handle feelings of remorse.
Many kids with ADHD have behaviors that get them in trouble. They might tell lies or have angry outbursts, for example. These actions or words can sometimes be hurtful to others. And when that happens, it can have lingering consequences — not just for the person who’s been hurt, but also for the child with ADHD.
Some people may not think of kids with ADHD as feeling remorse for something they’ve said or done. But even if it doesn’t seem like it, many kids with ADHD feel bad when they upset someone — even more so than other kids. They often have trouble managing emotions. So, feelings of remorse can be deep and have an unexpected impact on self-esteem.
Here’s what you need to know about ADHD and remorse, and how you can help your child manage these feelings.
The difference between remorse and regret
To understand the connection between ADHD and remorse, it’s important to also understand the difference between remorse and regret.
Regret is when people wish they hadn’t taken the action they took or said the hurtful thing they said. This is often because their action had a consequence that upsets them. Maybe their actions got them into trouble, for instance.
Remorse, on the other hand, is about feeling bad about having made someone else upset. It’s feeling empathy for others and guilt that you’ve caused them pain.
Temper flare-ups, lying and moodiness are common with ADHD. But it’s typically due to lack of self-control, not a lack of caring or empathy. In fact, many kids with ADHD are very sensitive to the feelings of others.
Imagine this scenario: It’s time for dinner, but your grade-schooler with ADHD doesn’t want to stop playing with her friends or be the only one going in. All she can think about is how much fun her friends may have without her. She gets angry and yells, “You always spoil everything! I wish you weren’t my mom!”
Your child doesn’t really think or feel that way, however. Once she regains self-control and realizes what she said, she’s very upset and even more remorseful than most other kids would be. She might even think she’s a bad person.
How executive functioning issues can lead to remorse
There are other aspects of executive functioning challenges that may cause kids to do things that make them feel remorse. They can include:
- Trouble connecting the “right now” to the future.
- Difficulty thinking ahead to the consequences of actions.
- Understanding how they got to the place of hurting somebody’s feelings.
- Knowing how to slow down before acting or speaking.
Trouble with apologizing
Kids with ADHD have the tendency to fixate on things. Instead of apologizing outright, they may spend far too much time trying to find a way to do it just right. They might dwell on what they’ve done, going over and over what they could have done differently or better.
Or they may lie to try to get out of the situation. Lying takes away the pressure of having to say sorry, which can be especially tough for kids with social anxiety.
All this can lead to kids not only feeling remorseful, but also to feeling bad about themselves. Some kids may even feel like it’s just “one more thing” about ADHD that makes them different or not “good enough.”
How to help your child cope with remorse
Since kids with ADHD typically have trouble managing their emotions, their feelings of remorse may be more intense than for other kids. That feeling of “beating themselves up” over what they’ve done may also last longer for them than for kids who don’t have ADHD. But there are ways you can help.
- Remind kids that you love them. Kids need to know that even when they screw up and you’re both angry, your family still loves each other. You can say something like, “I don’t like the way you acted, but I always love you. And I know that even though you said something hurtful, you still love me, too.” Explain that it’s OK to have big feelings, but how you express them matters.
- Help put things in perspective. Kids with ADHD often have trouble shifting their perspective from one situation to another. You can say things like, “Yes, you hurt my feelings, but what’s important is to find ways to make sure this doesn’t keep happening.”
- Remove the guilt. Don’t excuse what kids have done, but do let them know you understand they feels bad about it. You might say, “It seems like you feel bad. Everybody does things they don’t feel good about. Let’s figure out how to help you express that you feel sorry.”
- Teach your child how to apologize. Apologizing is different from just saying “I’m sorry.” It involves reflecting on your actions, taking responsibility for them, and coming up with a plan to respond differently next time. Watch a video and download a “cheat sheet” of how to use the S-O-R-R-Y method to make a genuine apology.
- Set house rules for behavior. Make sure your child knows what the house rules are. For example, make it clear that name-calling or hitting are always off-limits. Let your child know ahead of time the consequences for breaking those rules.
- Follow the same rules. It’s important for the adults to follow the house rules, too. When kids see parents yelling at each other or calling each other names, they learn it’s an appropriate way to cope with stress or that there are exceptions to the rules.
You can also learn about the relationship between ADHD and other behaviors and emotions, including:
The cycle of doing “bad” things and then feeling like a “bad” person can have a negative impact on your child. It can lower self-esteem and the motivation to keep trying. Knowing the challenges of ADHD allows you to help your child avoid negative situations and handle feelings of remorse.
Kids with ADHD often have great empathy for others.
ADHD challenges can make it especially hard for them to apologize.
Putting things in perspective for your child can help your child let go of guilty feelings and move forward.
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Stephanie Moulton Sarkis, PhD is an ADHD/ASD expert and a best-selling author.