Managing strong emotions is often difficult for children with ADHD. Likewise, parents often have to respond to such emotions by managing their own, intense feelings. So what can be done before an emotionally charged situation turns into an ‘emotional mess’ for everyone involved?
Mindfulness can help. Derived from meditation, mindfulness training includes attention/awareness, self-regulation and compassion, and trains us to be more present to ourselves and others in daily activities. A big part of this approach is bringing attention to body sensations in order to release the grip of intense thoughts, feelings and reactions. By moving our attention toward our breath and body sensations, mindfulness often creates a choice about our response.
When it comes to intense emotions, focus on the body can be very helpful, and can even be done for a few moments in the midst of a conflict. With mindfulness, we are asked to pause briefly and notice: What body sensations are present? Where are they located exactly? Are they changing or staying the same? What feelings, thoughts or impulses arise as we pay attention to our bodies?
The focus on the emotion in the body is done with a few guidelines:
- In the spirit of curiosity – “I want to understand what is happening with me right now….I want to learn how anger or frustration expresses itself in my body.”
- With clear labeling—or naming the categories of the sensations, emotions or thoughts. For example, “Oh, there is tension in my neck and shoulders….there is a pit-like sensation in my stomach…there is a thought that I want to scream.”
- In the spirit of acceptance and kindness with yourself, without judging yourself for having an intense feeling – “I am not going to beat myself up for feeling this.”
A short mnemonic, R.A.I.N., can remind us how to be with emotions mindfully. Here’s an example for noticing the feeling of frustration:
R=Recognize: Note (or label) with curiosity the feeling you are experiencing, e.g. “Oh, there is frustration.”
A=Accept: You don’t have to like feeling being frustrated or stressed. But it is here—see if you can accept that the feeling is here and now.
I=Investigate: To deepen your awareness, notice how frustration is affecting your body. Notice the areas of tensing muscles, or how your breathing changes. As you observe, see if there are any thoughts or feelings that may be present…perhaps a fear, helplessness or anger, or thoughts like, “I hate this” or “I want to scream.”
N=Not-Identify: Don’t overly personalize the emotion. Remember that this is just a reaction. It is like a wave that rises and eventually falls. See if you can ‘surf the wave’ without being drowned by it.
Once you acknowledge your reaction mindfully, you can manage your emotions further by choosing additional steps. Such steps may include
- taking a few deeper breaths or watching the sensation of the breath as it is
- repeatedly naming (or labeling) in your mind the intense feeling. For example, repeating silently to yourself, “There is anger…anger, anger, anger, anger.” As you try this, see if the labeling of emotion changes the intensity of your experience.
- taking a time out and actively helping yourself defuse the emotion. Some mindful strategies include slow walking and paying attention to sensations at the soles of your feet. This can help feeling more grounded. Or connecting with your 5-senses in the present moment (i.e. looking, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting things mindfully) and allowing the emotions to settle down.
- remembering that your child (or perhaps you) are struggling with intense emotions, and these are not always easy to control, especially when ADHD is involved. Practice having compassion and forgiveness for your child or yourself for over-reacting.
As you try these strategies, be curious what your own experience is like and let me know what you find out.
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