Walking on Eggshells? How to Help ADHD Kids Control Emotions

Laurie Duplar

Jordan’s mom was near tears. “What can I do about the roller coaster of emotions that Jordan seems to have throughout the day? I am never quite sure what is coming next and I feel like I am always walking on eggshells worried about setting him off. Not knowing when he will burst into tears or lash out in anger is affecting everyone in the family.”

There is a feeling of dread that comes over families when ADHD members have difficulty managing their moods. Family members live in constant fear that something, unbeknownst to anyone else, will “set them off,” either to have them stomping around in a rage or crumpled in a corner unable to be comforted. This roller coaster of unpredictable emotions has everyone tiptoeing around the person, hoping to minimize the chaos.

In the long run, when a child doesn’t learn to manage his emotions in a way that works for him, it’s unfair for everyone involved. Family relationships become strained, and the sensitive, emotional ADHD child is ill prepared to deal with life’s challenges.

It is normal for children with attention deficit disorder (ADD/ADHD) to experience and express emotions more intensely than their peers, siblings or friends. It becomes a problem when emotions get in the way of enjoying life.

Extreme emotions stem from the overwhelming senses your kids experience when they feel out of control – when they can’t make their brains work the way they want, or can’t do things the way everyone else does. If they could manage their emotions and feelings on their own, they would.

In other words:

  • Your child needs help learning how to manage emotions.
  • You are not a bad parent because your child is struggling emotionally.
  • Your child is not bad or trying to manipulate you with emotions to be naughty.

Helping your child Manage Emotions

The good news is that most children can be taught (with your help) to manage the roller coaster of emotional moods by trying, applying and practicing some of the techniques below. These strategies will help you and them feel in charge, rather then sabotaged by their own moods.

  1. Name the emotion

During a time when you and your child are calm, help your child name emotion(s). Ask, “Tell me about when you went in your room and slammed your door. What were you thinking about? What do you call how you were feeling?” Some children may not be able to label their emotion “anger,” but rather describe the feeling like “being a volcano;”“anxiety” may be described as “a stomach full of butterflies;” “sadness” may be “being in a dark place.” By helping your children name emotions using their own words, you begin to help them to feel in control.

  1. Help your child identify emotional triggers

Certain situations are triggers for emotional overwhelm, like overstimulation or feelings of defeat. Maybe your child did not sleep well the night before (nearly 80% of children with ADHD do not fall asleep easily and may sleep restlessly) or they overreact when they are hungry. Maybe their ADHD medication is wearing off, or they react to loud noises or itchy clothing. Maybe they struggle at school. Brainstorm with your child situations that seem to precede and set off the intense emotional reactions.

  1. Create a warning signal

Once triggers are identified, you can help your child gain control of the emotion by “catching” it before it takes over. Just as lighthouses warn boats of rough seas ahead, you can create a warning sign for your child to alert them to wayward emotions. Again, brainstorm and include your child’s input in coming up with “signals” that you give to each other (or to a teacher) when either of you notices your child beginning to “ramp up.” Maybe its putting your finger to your nose…tugging on your ear…or saying something such as “light house” — something to help reroute emotions and steer your child to safe waters.

  1. Detour bad feelings in their tracks

Some children benefit from ongoing techniques to keep their emotions manageable. Tools such as relaxation, breathing techniques, and visual imagery can help kids fight off feelings of sadness, anxiety and overwhelm. Practice these with your child when they are calm. Once a calming technique is mastered, it can detour a bad feeling in its tracks.

  • Relax: Have your child lie down and focus on and relax one body part at a time—hands, arms, chest—until the entire body is calm.
  • Breathe: Teach your child to breathe in deeply, count from one to three, then breathe out. As breathing slows, the body becomes more relaxed. When focusing on each breath, it’s harder to focus on bad thoughts.
  • Visualize: Ask your child to think about a happy time or a good feeling, or create one — like exploring a farm, or lying on the sand next to an ocean.
  • Escape: Explore alternative activities that can help calm your child. Maybe its playing with Legos, listening to music, reading a book, drawing or writing. The idea is to help your children experience the satisfaction and success of bringing themselves back to calm so they can begin to trust their ability to do so.

When emotions overcome 

It takes a while to shift the familiar pattern of explosive anger or imploding tears. When they happen, sometimes it is best to let the emotional upset run its course. Often, children benefit from being left alone without the additional emotional stimulation of our trying to make it better. Give them about 30 minutes. In due time they will settle down and you will be able to have a chance to calmly talk to your child about what happened, and use the steps above to prevent future episodes.

Your confidence that they CAN learn to manage their emotions will inspire them to find solutions over time.

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