- Many individuals with ADHD have some difficulty controlling their emotions.
- Executive functioning deficits play a key role in the emotional dysregulation associated with ADHD.
- Encouraging a growth mindset in your child could help them to control their emotional outbursts.
Most of us are probably familiar with the superhero the Incredible Hulk. The calm, intelligent scientist Bruce Banner transforms into a large green monster when he gets frustrated and angry. When your child has ADHD, sometimes, it may feel like you are living with your own Incredible Hulk.
My son loves to build Lego sets. When he was younger, it was inevitable that he would eventually get to a point where he couldn’t find a certain piece in the sea of Lego pieces scattered on the floor and then would have a colossal meltdown. Although his behavior may have seemed like an overreaction, children with ADHD often get frustrated quickly, make something way more important than it really is, have trouble calming down once they are angry, and are often offensive when criticized.
Why Kids with ADHD Struggle with Emotional Dysregulation
My son saw a therapist in elementary school because my husband and I were concerned about his emotional outbursts. At the time, we did not realize his emotional outbursts were part of his ADHD.
In fact, the currently accepted diagnostic criteria for an ADHD diagnosis do not include a lack of emotional control. However, research shows that low tolerance for frustration, a hot temper, and impatience are all part of ADHD.
Anger and frustration are regulated through executive functioning, the neurobiological process affected in ADHD. Additionally, deficits in working memory in those with ADHD interfere with learning from previous experiences. Therefore, kids with ADHD tend to have more difficulty managing their emotions compared to their peers and often react to a frustrating situation in an impulsive and explosive manner instead of responding to it.
One afternoon, I picked my son up from the bus stop when he was in middle school, and when he got in the car, I could see he was crying. When I asked him what happened, he told me about an incident on the bus with three older girls who were making fun of him. One of the girls took pictures of him with her smartphone while he was getting upset and, in an impulsive, explosive reaction to the situation, my son knocked the girl’s phone out of her hands and yelled back at his tormenters. My son was immediately embarrassed by his behavior since he never had an outburst of anger in public before.
Kids with ADHD live in the here and now, often getting caught up in their emotions. In addition to executive function deficits, mindset may play a role in emotional dysregulation.
Carol Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University, has proposed two types of mindsets: a fixed mindset, and a growth mindset. According to Dweck’s research, individuals with a fixed mindset believe they have a certain set of skills that cannot be modified or changed; you are good at something, or you are not.
Those with a fixed mindset are afraid of failure and feel if they are not very good at something there is no need to work at it. In contrast, individuals with a growth mindset view mistakes as learning opportunities to help them perform better in the future.
Children and adults with ADHD often have a fixed mindset, feeling frustrated when they struggle to complete a task they believe they are not good at. I have frequently heard the words, “I'm not good at this” from my son as he becomes increasingly frustrated with something he is trying to do.
Managing Emotional Dysregulation
As his parent, it is difficult to watch my son lose control of his emotions. I try to remember that he is not making the choice to act in such an explosive manner. I also need to keep my temper in check to avoid a screaming match with no resolution to what aggravated him in the first place.
Once my son’s emotions start to get the best of him—I’ve learned the hard way—it is better to let him walk away instead of following him and trying to get the last word in. When he has calmed down and has his emotions in check, he is ready to dive back into the previous task and will even apologize for his behavior.
The good news is someone can change from having a fixed mindset to having a growth mindset. According to Dweck, the key may be to praise your child’s effort. For example, if your child receives an A on a test, say you are proud of him because of the effort he put into studying for the test (instead of telling him how smart he is).
When my son becomes frustrated while engaged in a task, I try to point out to him how much he has already accomplished. Sometimes, stepping away from the task or frustrating situation helps my son to have a better perspective; this takes an enormous amount of practice, even for someone without ADHD.
Dweck, Carol S. (2016) Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.