Emotional Responses to ADHD Behaviors are Counterproductive

Kids with ADHD are often viewed as having behavior problems, in part, because parents and professionals have difficulty parsing out executive functioning, social learning, emotional regulation challenges, and behavior issues. Delayed executive function skills in the areas of emotional regulation, cognitive flexibility, and impulse control often present as behavioral in nature — they appear intentional when they are not.

“Behaviors” are words or actions used to elicit attention or an emotional reaction in others, typically parents. Because of the amount of negative attention that most kids with ADHD receive, many learn that exhibiting negative behaviors elicits undivided attention and emotional behavior from their parents. Kids with ADHD tend to live in intense emotions, so that emotional reactivity is affirming for them.

When kids with ADHD do things impulsively without thinking, there is often no reason behind their behaviors. Telling them to ‘think before they act’ is not helpful because you are asking them to do something that is incongruent with their brain development and ability to use their self-direct talk. These are all aspects of executive functioning.

Keep in mind that kids with ADHD live in strong emotions; getting emotional reactivity from their family members is like pulling those family members into their world of strong emotions. Kids with ADHD prefer positive attention, but they’ll take negative attention if it is all they can get. And kids with ADHD often demand more attention in general than do other kids, so they need a different parenting approach than do their siblings.

This is never about blame or fault. You haven’t done anything wrong; it’s just about taking a different approach.

The most concise and meaningful piece of advice I can share is this: Stop giving attention and emotional reactivity to unwanted behaviors. This does not mean to simply ignore, though sometimes it may. But rather it means learning how to use affective calmness, meaning you don’t respond to negative words or behaviors with emotional reactivity but rather you show a calmness even if you don’t feel calm inside.

The term I use for this with kids is emotional compression. How ever you feel is fine, but you can’t always show how you feel. This applies to parents as well.

Finally, if you are dealing with emotional challenges at home and ADHD medication was recommended as part of treatment, but your child is not medicated, you are most likely not going to see any improvement even when implementing strategies. Furthermore, the long-term outcomes for people with ADHD who go unmedicated are not good.

However, when you learn how to respond to your child’s behaviors differently, you can cultivate positive behavioral changes at home and make life less stressful.


Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW is the facilitator of the ADHD Dude Facebook Group and YouTube channel.

Updated on March 18, 2021

This content was originally published here.

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