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Understanding Emotional Regulation and ADHD

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a common diagnosis. Most often, ADHD is associated with symptoms of inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. A lot of people don’t realize that emotional dysregulation is a very common symptom of ADHD. If you’re a parent or guardian to someone with ADHD, I hope this blog provides some insight. To better understand the connection between emotions and ADHD, we first have to understand something called executive function. 




Executive function is a set of higher-level cognitive skills that helps us help us to coordinate our behaviour. Executive functions help us plan, prioritize, complete tasks, and make decisions. Executive functions are useful in several areas of life, especially where self-control is needed, such as when our emotions are activated. 


When something upsets us and we attempt to gain control of our emotions, we rely heavily on executive functions. Our emotions require that we direct our attention to an activating event to evaluate what happened. From there, we identify the emotions we need to regulate. Then, we identify a coping strategy and execute it. After that, we monitor the effects of that strategy and decide if we need to try again. Ultimately, that is a lot of steps, especially for a child with ADHD.


Executive dysfunction is highly associated with ADHD. As a result, many ADHDers struggle to interpret information, plan, prioritize, organize, and complete tasks. When children and adults with ADHD experience a big emotion, it can be hard for them to self-soothe, re-focus their attention, and organize themselves for coordinated action. Also, many people with ADHD struggle with inhibition, or the ability to practice self-restraint. As a result, a lot of ADHDers find they have big reactions. Perhaps they experience 'meltdowns' more often than others, or they begin crying, angering, and yelling after something seemingly minor occurs. Remember, no child wants to feel this way or engage in these behaviours. Put simply, their capacity to cope is overwhelmed. As adults, we can help children develop this capacity. 


Emotional regulation begins with becoming self-aware. If your child struggles with emotional dysregulation, It may be helpful to explore potential triggers. Also, neglecting to eat well, sleep well, and relax would impair anyone’s ability to deal with big emotions. In general, self-care is very important! It’s also helpful to try to plan ahead. This involves deciding on a coping strategy or problem-solving skills before a potentially triggering situation occurs. Perhaps this involves walking away, using a distraction, or asking for support. Exploring coping strategies is a great way to help your child handle big emotions. Luckily, there are plenty of amazing resources on the internet to help you and your child develop ways to cope. The more they practice their coping skills, the better they will get at them! 


References

Burns, E., & Martin, A. J. (2014). ADHD and adaptability: The roles of cognitive, behavioural, and emotional regulation. Journal of Psychologists and Counsellors in Schools, 24(2), 227-242.

Christiansen, H., Hirsch, O., Albrecht, B., & Chavanon, M. L. (2019). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and emotion regulation over the life span. Current psychiatry reports, 21, 1-11.

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