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 isn’t mentioned. They have trouble managing their emotions.
There are official criteria that doctors use to diagnose ADHD. Trouble with emotions isn’t one of them. But researchers and professionals who treat kids with ADHD often report that emotions play a big role in the daily difficulties kids face.
Kids with ADHD don’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 they’re angry or stressed about something. Others might struggle to get revved up to do something when they’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 he’s done. It turns out he’s made some comment about her hair. She wants you to punish him, and she gets mad when you don’t react. Then she complains all night long about how unfair that is.
Here’s another potential scenario:
Your 15-year-old has a ton of homework. But he doesn’t sit down to do it. Instead, he spends the afternoon texting with friends. You’ve already tried using consequences to try to motivate him to do his work. He just says it’s boring and acts like he doesn’t care. Nothing makes him stop what he’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. They’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 bit—or not that much—as kids grow up.
Like their peers, kids with ADHD aren’t all alike in their temperaments. Some are more laid back or timid. Others are more reactive, outspoken and aggressive.
But often, they don’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 brain’s reasoning powers.
Kids with ADHD typically have trouble with working memory (along with other executive functions). And that makes it very hard for them to keep the bigger picture in mind. They tend to get stuck in whatever they’re feeling in that moment.
As they grow up, most kids who don’t have ADHD learn how to manage their emotions so they don’t get too caught up in them. If they begin to feel too angry or hurt, they learn to say to themselves, “Calm down, chill out—this doesn’t have to be such a big deal.”
If they’re getting too discouraged trying to do something, they might be able to tell themselves, “OK, that doesn’t look like it’s going to work. I’ll try again or will try to find better way to deal with it.”
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 they’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 they’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 there’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. “I can see how disappointed you are about coming in second in the science fair.” Don’t argue about whether he should be feeling this way. That usually just escalates the problem.
Once he’s calm, offer to help him figure out some better way to deal with that emotion—one that might help him switch his thinking. For example, you could say:
- “I know you’re upset and just want to leave the science fair and go home. But I’m proud of what you did.”
- “I 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.”
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.