Your teenage son with ADHD is hyper-focused on a task. On the tip of his tongue is the answer to a question he’s been pondering. Just then, his sister asks for a pencil, breaking his concentration. Feeling he’ll never have that answer again, he explodes in frustration, cursing and storming out of the room.
It is common for teenage boys with ADHD to have a hard time regulating their emotions. It’s not willful or personal. Rather, their neurological profile and lagging skills cause them to lose control quickly and to overreact with intense, erratic feelings, particularly during times of uncertainty.
Emotional regulation involves a number of executive function skills, which are consistently weak in individuals with ADHD: flexibility and shifting thoughts, reflecting on similar events in the past and how they were handled, and the ability to consider future consequences.
Mary Anne Richey, a licensed school psychologist, explains that parents are key in the lengthy — and worthwhile — progress toward emotional regulation. She maintains that being intentional in your day-to-day parenting and setting realistic rules and expectations for self-control will promote your teen’s emotional growth and make a big difference in his future.
Richey offers the following guidelines to help your son learn to regulate his emotions:
- Make self-control a goal for the entire family. Kids with ADHD and LD do best when information and ideas are clearly explained and when behavior is explicitly modeled. They don’t learn through osmosis, and they won’t pick up belief systems or expectations that are unspoken or assumed.
- To make sure the whole family is on the same page, introduce a “family code”— what your family stands for, core values, and rules of behavior framed in a positive way.
- Outline reasonable and achievable expectations and consequences for noncompliance and make certain your son feels comfortable with them. Example: We all agree to treat others with patience, understanding and respect. We speak in a kind tone of voice and avoid name-calling, cursing, or yelling. We ask for help, when needed, are honest with each other, even when painful; apologize and learn from our mistakes; and support each other with kindness.
- Follow up with weekly family meetings to celebrate achievements, raise concerns, and brainstorm possible solutions to problems.
- Recognize potential meltdown triggers and warning signs for dysregulation.
- Routine arguments, social/romantic rejections, criticism, bullying, difficulty with school/work assignments, interruptions when absorbed in a task, changes in routine, or requests to complete boring or tedious tasks may trigger immediate raw emotional responses.
- His body might begin to feel dysregulated, with a pounding heart, shortness of breath, or stomach cramps, and he might experience trouble focusing and regulating his thoughts, words and actions.
- Decide which trigger to address first and create a plan in advance to help prevent or diminish meltdowns.
- Minimize conditions that lead to emotional outbursts. Encourage your teen to structure his day; refrain from multi-tasking; eat well, get plenty of sleep, and participate in stress-relieving activities and exercise. Schedule time to decompress and refocus, particularly if he also has sensory challenges.
- Don’t reinforce bad behavior. Refrain from allowing your teen to get what he wants by cursing or failing to control his emotions. Giving in to him will make dealing with the next outburst more difficult. Provide prompt, consistent feedback. However, be sure to acknowledge his achievements, especially his efforts to control himself, even if unsuccessful.
- Do not engage in the heat of the moment. Nothing can be accomplished until your teen is calm: Don’t try to enforce expectations, remove privileges, or teach skills. He may need your help in calming down.
- Listen with empathy and help him identify his feelings. Once calm, your teen can process his emotions and think more clearly. Validate his feelings and experiences, and help him feel understood. Explain that ADHD and executive function delays make self-control difficult. Encourage him to name his feelings (“I’m feeling embarrassed” “I’m feeling hurt”) as the first step to being able to control them. Help him understand what was behind his feelings and support him in being able to ask for the help he needs in a calm tone of voice.
- Teach him to develop strategies for self-restraint and practice them. Discuss what would help him hold back inappropriate impulses and not give in to explosiveness. Let your teen decide which ones might work for him. (See below for suggestions.)
- If your teen’s outbursts are severe in number, duration or intensity, you may need professional help to manage them. In addition to a functional behavioral assessment, behavioral intervention plan, cognitive behavioral therapy, ADHD/EF coaching, or other appropriate interventions, medication may help improve your son’s neurological network and help him regulate his behaviors.
Keep in mind that learning how to regulate emotions may take years of practice with many mistakes along the way. Be patient but consistent in your support. Following are strategies for your son to incorporate as he strives for better self-restraint.
- Remove himself from a potentially provoking situation before he becomes explosive
- Take time to think about consequences
- Visualize a stop sign in front of his face
- Shift focus of attention by counting to 10
- Change his thinking about how emotional responses may affect him
- Delay action by saying, “Let me think about it and I’ll get back to you”
- Use positive self-talk: “Calm down”; “Chill out”; “I can handle this”
- Soothe himself when he identifies an early warning sign by splashing water on his face/wrists, breathing deeply and consciously, or tensing and relaxing his muscles.
This article is based on Game-Changing Strategies for Raising Teen Boys with ADHD, an ADDitude webinar, by Mary Anne Richey, M.Ed., a licensed school psychologist, who is the co-author of four books on ADHD, including Raising Boys with ADHD and The Empowerment Guide (Prufrock Press). Eve Kessler, Esq., a retired criminal appellate attorney, is the Executive Director of SPED*NET Wilton (CT) and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.