Guest Expert

Managing Emotions with Two Sides of a Coin Principle

What Do Tantrums and Eye Color Have in Common?

A common description of children with ADHD is that they are “over-emotional.” Whenever I see this reference in the media or in literature, I get annoyed. There's a lot involved with managing emotions with ADHD. I understand that this is meant to be some sort of useful description of an ADHD symptom. Really, though, it is a judgment -- a cultural “you should…”

Standing in judgment does not serve our children with ADHD – it just makes them feel badly about being themselves. Certainly, we want them to learn to manage their emotions on a level that they are comfortable with. But do we really want to squash their spirit?

From birth, in our culture, our children are molded to embrace a certain belief system that tells them what feelings are acceptable. Our kids learn very early on, “You should not get upset at this, but it's okay to be upset about that.”

As our children grow up, these societal expectations turn into pressures.

  • “Don't cry in front of other people.”
  • “Be tough.”
  • “Grow up.  A kid your age shouldn't act this way.”
  • “Don't let them see you get upset.”

Contrary to the belief that we can control our feelings if we try hard enough, our emotional responses to life are actually pre-programmed the same way our eye color is programmed.  Although I often wish that I had blue eyes, my eyes are brown. I do not feel shame or “less than” because of this. It is what it is.

In addition, emotional responses are signals from our “inner selves” or our “souls” that give us valuable information about a situation at hand that could be very useful to navigating life in the present and the future.  It is important that we teach our children to pay attention to these strong emotional responses, because it will assist them in figuring out who they are and what they want their lives to look like.

It took me decades to accept and celebrate that my ADHD makes me more emotional than others, and that this is really a wonderful variant of self, just like eye color. I know that my emotional responses to life motivate me to “do better” and care deeply about important things. At times, what looks to others like impulsive behavior is actually my fighting against injustices–injustices that others don't feel compelled to battle. In short, it is an asset that makes me a warrior!

At the end of the day, everyone just wants to be heard, and our children are no exception.  We all want to feel like what is in our hearts is important, and that it is acknowledged and appreciated by others.

So, when your child has what you see as “excessive emotional behavior,” please accept that as part of her spirit and DNA. You won't always like it, or understand it. That's okay. You still want to find a way to allow her to express herself.  When you support her in figuring out who she is, a trait that appears to be a detriment becomes a valuable asset.

How do you learn to be a supportive parent in the face of emotionally intense children?

  • Do not show embarrassment in front of others when your children behave emotionally.

  • Recognize that impulsive behaviors tend to follow intense expressions of emotion.

  • Do not judge the behavior or make your children feel guilt or shame over how they feel.

Now, don't get me wrong -- if your child's responses are filled with rage or are dangerous, or you just don't know how to respond in a supportive way in these instances, get some support. Work with professionals, parenting coaches or therapists, to learn how to redirect your child's behaviors in a way that does not shame them. You love your child – get some help learning how to show it, even in the face of your child's emotional intensity.

Those children blessed with enormous emotion and impulsivity that cause them to act on those emotions are often the very people who grow up to change the world for the better. Passion for a cause, and enough impulsivity to take action to fight for that cause, regardless of the possible negative consequences, are ingredients that make up much-needed Heroes in our chaotic world.

So, I'll leave you with this. If you want help learning to manage emotions with ADHD, or help your kids manage emotions, remember that everything in life follows the “two sides of a coin” principle. Value your kids, and they will value themselves. Empower your children, and the positive aspects of their impulsivity and emotionality will eventually reign!

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