Emotional Regulation Struggles in Children with ADHD

Emotional Regulation Struggles in Children with ADHD

Finding out that a child in your classroom has ADHD can be a bit intimidating, not just because of the struggle with sitting still, blurting out, and picking up social cues, but also because many of these children struggle greatly with regulating their emotions. This often causes the emotional outbursts that happen in the classroom. For teachers, however, there can also be a silver lining. These children can also be some of the most adoring fans a teacher will ever know.

The WebMD article, “Study: Many With ADHD Can’t Control Emotions,” more than half of people with ADHD struggle to regulate their emotions. In a classroom, this means that little problems can mean temper tantrums, yelling, crying, and “shutting down.” But it also means that children with ADHD are hungry for approval and love. They deeply, deeply want their teachers and peers to care for them.

I often work in early elementary classrooms, and watching a five-year-old with ADHD can be like watching a roller coaster. Here’s an average hour and a half in the morning of a kindergarten boy with ADHD (Note: the interactions that affect the child negatively will be in red, and positive interactions will be green.):

8:00 A.M. – The child will show up in the morning all full of pep and delight in all the day has to offer. He gives his teacher a hug and announces that he loves her. And he really means it.

8:04 A.M. – The child touches a fury keychain on his classmate’s backpack, and his classmate tells him angrily to leave her stuff alone.

8:18 A.M. – The child gets in trouble because he’s decided to crawl under the bathroom stall to talk with his friend in the stall next door. His friend doesn’t mind.

8:20 A.M. – He tries to explain that he was just saying hi to his friend. The teacher takes a point from his behavior chart for the day to make the point that it’s not acceptable to crawl under bathroom stalls. Disappointment takes over, and the child stomps his foot, angry that he got in trouble for trying to tell his friend hi. He gets in trouble for yelling at his teacher.

8:45 A.M. – The child angrily returns to the classrooms, his feelings still hurt. When he’s told to sit on his carpet spot, he throws himself on the floor, not criss-cross applesauce like he’s supposed to. Instead, he lays on the floor, legs and arms stretched out in protest. The teacher tells him to sit up so he doesn’t get stepped on. He ignores her as part of his protest. He gets in trouble again for direct disobedience.

9:26 A.M. – In an attempt to find someone else who likes him, since he’s sure his teacher doesn’t, he pokes another little boy until the two are laughing, chasing one another around the classroom. He feels he’s found someone who approves of him.

9:27 A.M. – They both get in trouble.

Children with ADHD often swing to extremes emotionally. When they like you, they adore you. When they’re made at you, you’re likely to get anything from the cold shoulder to an outburst you won’t soon forget. Their feelings are easy to injure, and they often crave approval from family and friends. This research goes beyond the classroom doors.

The American Journal of Psychiatry article, “Emotion Dysregulation in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder,” says that most individuals with ADHD struggle to regulate their emotions. While the cause of this hasn’t been identified, there are three key findings on “emotional dysregulation” that have emerged from research on the subjects:

1.) Emotional Dysregulation lasts for a lifetime, and is part of the impairment that comes with ADHD.

2.) Emotional dysregulation may come from the inability to recognize and focus attention on emotional stimuli.

3.) Medications that treat ADHD can often help to alleviate the emotional dysregulation, but it appears that more focus on this dysregulation could lead to improvements in therapy treatments as well.

No matter what the cause, it’s a fact that many adults and children alike with ADHD are highly emotional, and are less likely to have the ability to regulate those emotions than others. The ADDitude article, “Devastated by Disapproval,” says that the majority of people with ADHD  report high sensitivity to rejection, teasing, or criticism from others, or the struggle with feelings of Displeasing Someonepersonal failure. The author calls it rejection-sensitive dysphoria. He says, “They are describing the inner experience of being hyperactive or hyper-aroused.”

Just as their minds and bodies are nearly at constant states of attention or arousal, their emotions are as well. It’s like they’re just waiting for someone to criticize them or tell them they’re failures. I see it in students often. The kiddos are desperate for approval, and unfortunately, their disorders often get them the exact opposite of what they really want.

According to a WebMD article, “Study: Many With ADHD Can’t Control Emotions,” this struggle with emotions seems to occur often in families. Researchers aren’t sure, however, of how much of this is due to genetics, and how much has to do with influence. Both theories make sense. On one hand, disorders often run in families. On the other hand, if there are two siblings, the older with ADHD and the younger without it, it’s still likely that both siblings will show a lack of ability to regulate their emotions. If the younger child watches his older sister and sees her get angry with little provocation, it’s very possible for him to think this is normal, and for him to emulate her.

So what can we do for these kiddos?

Take a moment and walk in their shoes. While it is inappropriate for a child to crawl underneath his neighbor’s bathroom stall, don’t let that incident ruin the whole day. For young children, particularly those with ADHD, the hurt of failure can last a long time. The blessed delight of approval, however, can go above and beyond easing the hurt. Here are a few tips to helping these kiddos know they’re care for personally, even if their actions aren’t always well thought out.

Emotionally Supporting Students with ADHD

1.) Begin each activity like a new day.

I’m not going to lie. It can be very difficult to regulate my own emotions sometimes when the child has pushed me to the edge of my sanity. But I have to remember that he desperately wants approval. A way I try to balance order and relationships in the classroom is to begin anew…often. Instead of just beginning the day on a fresh foot, I try to start each activity as if the last one didn’t happen.

Perhaps my student threw a temper tantrum during carpet time, but during science, I try to personally engage that student in an activity he’ll be successful at…and I’ll let him know it. I’ll shower him with praise, letting him know I’m proud of him for trying so hard. The activity doesn’t have to be difficult; in fact, it probably should be slightly below the level of the child to ensure success. And while this doesn’t exactly mean he’ll learn something new, it means he’ll be emotionally engaged in the rest of the lesson, rather than shutting it out because his feelings are hurt.

He’ll also know that he did something he can be proud of, a success he might not often experience.

2.) Try not to embarrass him in front of his peers.

If my student with ADHD spontaneously decides to take his friend’s favorite pencil and break it in half to hear what kind of sound it makes, there’s a good chance he didn’t mean to hurt his friend’s feelings. He honestly wanted to see what kind of sound the pencil would make. Unfortunately, his choice to break his friend’s pencil will involve probable yelling and crying from said friend, and a scolding from the teacher. It’s obviously not appropriate for the child to break his friend’s things. As a teacher, I must address the situation. I have, however options.

Option A: I yell at the child for breaking the pencil. He becomes sullen and throws the pencil pieces. I yell at him more for doing it, and tell him to pick them up. He doesn’t, which means I must mark his behavior chart for multiple infractions. He starts to cry and lays his head on his desk, refusing to do the rest of his math. Not only does he fail to learn the math lesson we’re on, but his anger will probably carry into the next activity as well.

Option B: I assure the child with the broken pencil that I will handle it, and she may get a new pencil. I take the offending child aside and speak with him in low tones that won’t embarrass him in front of his peers. We talk about why his friend is upset, and we discuss how he should apologize to her. I tell him I’m not angry, but we do need to learn to make better choices. There’s a good chance he’ll apologize to his friend in order to try and get her approval back. He’s also more likely to finish his math instead of pouting for the next hour.

While it might frustrate the living daylights out of me that the child is disrupting class and breaking things, yelling at him will probably just shut him down harder. Yelling proves to him that I don’t approve of him, and that he has failed, something he’ll feel more deeply than most children. You see, most children understand that you dislike their choice, but they know that your scolding isn’t personal. Children with ADHD, however will take it all personally.

I’ve found that I’m a lot more likely to get a discussion going over the bad choice when I take the child aside, where he’s not in front of his peers, and talk to him. We discuss his options, and talk about why he should have chosen one act instead of another. While I’m not guaranteed to get an apology, it’s a lot more likely that he will apologize this way than if I embarrass him in front of all his peers and assure him (in his eyes) that I dislike him.

3.) Engage with him on a personal level; see him as a person with feelings.

Many children with ADHD struggle with school in many areas. Aside from behavioral challenges, they often have learning disabilities and social struggles. If they know the teacher cares about them as people, however, they’re more likely to try and stay involved in the lessons, if only for the teacher’s approval.

This can be difficult for teachers who are about to hit the roof with that child. I’ll admit, there are days when a child with ADHD seems to have the goal of making me quit my job. I’ve often been pleasantly surprised, however, when I’ve swallowed my pride and tried to get to know the child on a personal level. The questions don’t have to be deep.

  • Do he play sports?
  • What is she doing that weekend?
  • What did he do last weekend?
  • Is he going anywhere over Labor Day weekend?
  • What does she want for Christmas?

Slip these questions in between activities or before and after school. Recess can be a great time, too. And don’t let up. Continue to make an effort to get to know that child. The more the child knows you’re invested in him, the more likely he is to try and engage in school, if simply for your approval and nothing else.

A quick note: Children with ADHD will often get so excited when they want to tell you something that they will give you a ten minute monologue where a two sentence answer to a question might have sufficed. Instead of telling them you don’t have time to talk with them, assure them you want to hear what they have to say. “I’m so sorry, Kevin, but we’re going to be doing math soon, so I need to get ready for math. But I promise, I want to hear about your weekend at Legoland! Could you please tell me at recess so I can hear all you have to say?” This answer assures them you’re still interested, and it helps them see that your distraction isn’t personal.

There are highlights to this great range of emotions….

I’ll admit, teaching kiddos with ADHD can be a huge challenge, considering you’ve got a whole other class of students to take care of as well. But a child who can feel deep dejection is often very likely to feel deep attachment as well. It might take some work, but it’s highly worth it. I can’t tell you how it feels to have a five-year-old look up at you and swear his undying love for you.

Because he means it.

And when he does that, you know that you’re in a position to help him grow as a person. And often, I find that these kiddos help me grow as a person as well. Like I tell my students, life is full of choices. I can dwell on my student’s high levels of frustration, or I can work to look past the surface and try to dig down to find the child below. I might not always be successful, but when I am, it’s like finding buried treasure. I’ve found a beautiful little human being who is hungry for love, and very, very eager to give it.

Do you have experience with children who struggle with this aspect of ADHD? I’d love to hear your tips and stories. Please share your thoughts in the Comment Box below. And don’t forget, you can sign up for my newsletter for extra resources on neurological disorders, education, and spiritual encouragement. As always, thanks for reading!

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4 comments

  • Angel The Alien on September 22, 2014 at 1:31 pm said:

    These are great tips! As an adult with ADHD and also a teacher for kids with special needs, I often get frustrated with how the education system seems to set these kids up for failure. I would love to start my own school someday. In it, kids would learn by moving around, doing activities, and exploring… and if they wanted to participate in circle time while sitting in a bean bag chair, lying down, kneeling, standing on their head, etc, I would teach them that way… where they are comfortable and engaged. No criss-cross-applesauce required!

    • brittanyfichterwrites@gmail.com on October 2, 2014 at 3:59 am said:

      Thanks! Yes, I definitely wish children got more active time during the day and had less sitting time. It’s frustrating, too, to work in schools where the teachers and staff can change little. The education system today has simply lost sight of how much better students perform when they have more physical movement and less desk time. Our kiddos need a bit of every kind of learning.

  • Sarah on January 20, 2016 at 3:04 am said:

    Thanks for this. It puts some things into perspective. I’m a teacher and a mother of two boys with ADHD. One definitely displays signs of RSD. Another helpful strategy I’ve discovered is writing notes when conversations are difficult. Even if I’m angry, my son can accept my words and my feelings much more easily on paper than face-to-face. He has a chance to express himself as well, and we have often worked out our miscommunications this way.

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