Understanding the Emotional Aspects of ADHD
by Dr. Tali Shenfield, Child Psychology and Parenting Blog
November 8, 2018

When most people hear the phrase “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder,” they immediately think of cognition problems. They imagine a child who struggles to pay attention in class and stay organized, but who is otherwise a typical little boy or girl. However, this picture dramatically oversimplifies the reality of living with ADHD. Like other neurodevelopmental disorders, ADHD can profoundly affect both how a person thinks and how he (or she) feels. If you’re parenting a child with ADHD, it’s imperative that you recognize, understand, and respond correctly to these emotional differences.

Children with ADHD experience the same general range of emotions as children without ADHD. Where they differ from neurotypical kids is in how they process their feelings. They frequently struggle to control their impulses and they often have difficulty fully comprehending and communicating their feelings. This can complicate their social and emotional lives in a number of different ways.

Anger and ADHD
As any parent of a child with ADHD knows, kids with this disorder are susceptible to having frequent outbursts of frustration and anger. This doesn’t happen because kids with ADHD are especially aggressive or violent, however. Instead, these children are prone to throwing tantrums and experiencing anger overload both because they “bottle up” their frustration (due to their inability to vocalize it) and because they have a lower stress tolerance than neurotypical kids.

It’s not uncommon for a child with ADHD to seem quite calm almost right up until the moment he melts down. When this happens, he isn’t having a sudden mood swing; instead, feelings that he’s been storing inside for hours or even days are finally erupting to the surface. It’s important to avoid responding with shock or criticism when this occurs. If your child is made to feel ashamed of his feelings, he’ll respond by trying even harder to repress them—and his explosions will get worse.

The best way to help your child deal with his low stress tolerance is to familiarize yourself with his triggers. If your child usually has an outburst when you try to make him do his homework, for example, it’s probable that frustration over his academic shortcomings is bubbling up. Helping him work through his feelings of insecurity and guiding him throughout the homework process (i.e., giving him assistance when it comes to staying organized and on track) may defuse these tantrums. Furthermore, you should work closely with your child to help him devise and implement positive solutions to the problems caused by his learning challenges.

You should also learn to look for subtle signs that your child is getting upset. Some kids with ADHD fidget more than usual when they are getting agitated, tease other children around them in order to release tension, etc. If you can recognize these “tells,” you’ll have a chance to take your child aside and talk him through his feelings before he blows up.

As a final note, many parents discover that the “find and replace” method works well for derailing tantrums. When your child starts acting out, help him identify the emotion he is feeling. Tell him you understand and sympathize with his feelings, then replace his negative viewpoint with a positive one. If your child is upset about the fact that he has to stop playing a game and go to bed, for example, remind him that getting a good night’s sleep will ensure that he has enough energy to play again tomorrow.

Identifying Anxiety in Kids with ADHD
Because many children with ADHD appear to be very “unfiltered,” it’s easy to overlook the anxiety they typically experience. In reality, however, the same lack of filters that makes these kids seem short-tempered also makes them highly sensitive. As such, they often experience deep fears of failure and rejection. These fears are heightened by the knowledge that they’re different from their peers. If left unchecked, the anxiety experienced by kids with ADHD can cause them to “shut down.” They may stop trying as hard at school in order to limit the sting of failure and they sometimes become socially isolated.

When you think your child isn’t putting enough effort into something - whether it’s a school project or a peer event - you shouldn’t rush to assume that he’s being lazy. Instead, you should take a closer look at whether or not anxiety is driving your child’s lack of initiative. Remember that most young children inherently want to do well. They want to please the adults in their lives and be liked by their classmates. If your child is shying away from trying to achieve these objectives, he probably needs gentle encouragement—not “tough love.”

Try asking your child a series of open-ended questions when he appears hesitant. Doing so might help him to identify, discuss, and process his worries. From there, you can work with him to develop solutions to the challenges he’s facing. If this approach doesn’t work, it’s a good idea to seek outside aid from a trained mental health professional. The sooner anxiety is addressed, the more effectively it can be treated.

Parents should be aware that some children become very good at masking the outward symptoms of their anxiety. As such, you should watch for subtle clues that your child is experiencing an excessive level of worry. Chronic insomnia, nightmares, changes in appetite, and social withdrawal can all be signs that a child is experiencing chronic anxiety.

Treating Low Self-Esteem
The academic and interpersonal challenges kids with ADHD face on a daily basis can take a toll on their self-esteem. The preteen and teen years are often particularly difficult for ADHD sufferers in this area. As is the case with most kids, puberty brings about changes in their brains that incite a desperate desire to fit in. This makes their natural social deficits much more apparent to them and, as a result, they become more susceptible to peer pressure. It’s not uncommon for kids with ADHD to become “class clowns” or daredevils in order to compensate for their lack of communication skills. Conversely, some kids with ADHD become shy and quiet.

While these traits sound fairly harmless, research shows that kids with ADHD are at a higher risk of engaging in substance abuse and other unsafe behaviours. Additionally, girls with ADHD are more likely to develop eating disorders than neurotypical girls. Ergo, working to build up your child’s self-esteem is essential. Doing so will help protect him (or her) from falling into hazardous developmental pitfalls.

The key to identifying low self-esteem lies in listening to how your child talks about himself. All children can be self-critical at times, but if your child’s “self talk” seems relentlessly negative, he’s probably suffering from low self-esteem. Children with a poor self image also struggle to develop a cohesive sense of identity. They may not be able to name their personality traits and they often have a hard time making decisions on their own.

Treating extremely low self-esteem often requires professional aid from a trained therapist. However, there’s a lot parents can do at home to support their child and build his confidence. Working to turn negative self talk around (by countering negative observations with positive ones) and offering praise freely at home can do a lot to change your child’s attitude.

One thing you should not do is over-protect your child. Though it can be tempting to try to shelter a child with low self-esteem from anything that might hurt him, this approach does not allow the child in question to self-actualize. Your child needs to be allowed to make his own choices (so long as he’s not putting himself in danger of serious physical harm, of course). Only by doing so can he learn to trust his own judgment and make measured, confident decisions.

Finally, make sure to explain to your child that he has just as many strengths as weaknesses. ADHD is not all bad, after all. While this condition can be challenging in many ways, research shows that people with ADHD also have unique gifts. They are more energetic and creative than average, for example.

Emotional Self-Regulation: Vital to Living With ADHD
Almost all children with ADHD need help developing emotional management skills. By teaching kids with ADHD how to empathize more readily with others, how to manage stress better, and how to “slow down” before responding, we can greatly improve both their social and emotional lives. This process is often a slow one, but the rewards are well worth it.