ADHD and Big Emotions Part 2

Big Emotion Emotional Regulation

Practical Tools the Whole Family Can Use

In Part 1 of this blog,  I wrote about how to help your child or teen navigate big emotions in the moment. I suggested that the idea was to feel and process the big emotions so that your child or teen could feel heard and receive the support necessary to recover, self-regulate and repair.

Proactively preventing tantrums, meltdowns, destruction, swearing, harm to others, and more is actually preferable than having to do it in the moment. In Part 2, we will learn proactive ways of handling big emotions in kids of all ages.

  1. Zones of Regulation. I often start with teaching young kids the Zones of Regulation to recognize their big emotions. This program was developed by a fellow occupational therapist and you can read all about it HERE. The basic premise is that we all have different “zones” of emotions that we cycle through during our days. This program gives language to the different feelings and helps provide tools so kids can learn how to stay in a desired zone, or move out of an undesired one. The blue zone represents low alertness and common related feelings may be tired or sick. The green zone is an ideal state of alertness where a person may be described as happy, calm, and in control. The yellow zone is a heightened state of alertness, with feelings frustration, annoyance, or even silliness. Finally, the red zone is an extremely heightened state of alertness and a person may be described as explosive, enraged, terrified, or elated. It is important to note that yellow and red zones do not indicate “bad” feelings. Different states of alertness are necessary or naturally related to different situations. I approach this differently with older kids, by basically talking about the range of feelings that everyone experiences, and how to notice them, name them, describe where they are in the body (that “butterfly feeling” or “tight chest” or “clammy hands” – all of those is how the physical body is experiencing the feeling). Once I teach them to have awareness, we move on to the other steps.
  1. Breathing is one of the simplest things we can do to have a calming effect on our emotional state as the awareness of some of those “mid-zone” big emotions begin. One tool that is always available is the breath! I ask kids to slow down and focus on their breathing by counting in their head to 5 as a breath comes in, and 5 as a breath comes out. I use what interests them (dragons, volcanos, rainbows, shapes) to illustrate how to control their breathing. When focus shifts from the feeling to the breath, and the lungs begin to expand with oxygen, it bathes the brain in neurochemicals that improve mood immediately. When a child or even a teenager begins to feel that they are moving out of zone they want to be in, or into a zone they do not want to be in, then the next step after awareness is to take one or more deep breaths.
  1. Press the pause button. Most kids who play electronics know that when you pause a game or video, everything stops for a moment. When kids are starting to feel frustrated or silly or like they are beginning to lose control, I ask them to find a spot on their body and designate that as the “pause button”. It could be the forehead or nose or chest or back of the hand. Then, tap that spot and literally stop what they are doing. They can then to spend a moment thinking before saying or doing anything in reaction to big emotions. I sometimes tell them it’s like they are having an “update” or use the electronic lingo if that resonates. If vehicles resonate, I say that it is time to rest and refuel. With barbies, dolls, animals, or similar, it’s rest or downtime. However you frame it, it is about recognizing that everyone and everything needs time to reset, recharge, and be ready to handle more demands later. That always requires a pause. After recognizing that they feel a certain emotion coming on, and stopping to take one or more deep breaths, learning to physically halt their actions or words with a pause is a really valuable tool.
  1. Don’t resist emotions! In Part 1 of this series, I talked about processing big emotions and how adults can help children and teens do this. Resisting emotions will cause us to adapt in ways that are not beneficial to us or the people around us in the long run. The next step in this process requires that they process that emotion. In order to “un-pause”, some internal changes need to be made. They may need to remove themselves from the emotional situation, take a walk or go into a quiet room alone. They may need a phrase they can say out loud or in their head, like “you’ve got this” or “breathe, pause, start over”. It will take active thinking in order to process and move past the emotion that is threatening to take over.
  2. Other tools may include daily meditation practice, yoga, journaling, or talking to someone real or imaginary. I’ve read about a specific technique called Emotional Freedom, but I am admittedly not as familiar with EFT, otherwise known as tapping, as I would like to be. (read about it HERE). Achieving a state of emotional regulation starts long before those negative or undesired emotions enter the picture. Young kids tend to love yoga and are often open to trying meditation and tapping. Teens may be more interested in journaling or talking with a trusted counselor or other adult. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to anything, so I encourage my clients to trial and error different strategies and find what works best for them. By bringing big emotions to the forefront of their brain we are first acknowledging that everyone who is human has a range of emotions, and that we can regain some control over our own thoughts and actions with practice.

Proactive Problem Solving

If you’ve heard of A-B-C for behavior identification and modification, I’m going to ask you to forget everything you heard! Using the Antecedent, that leads to a Behavior and to a Consequence may be helpful in some instances. However, much of what we do does not come from surface motivations, and it cannot easily be classified into ABC. In my last blog, I discussed the fight/flight/freeze response that occurs when the autonomic nervous system senses danger or stress. Behaviors that occur within those 3 F’s are decisions that are not made in the forebrain. They are survival-based, unconscious, reactive responses. “Training them out” with behavioral modification does not produce lasting results. Instead, it produces children who are forced to comply with adult directions but who do not know how to solve the problems that make it difficult to comply with the directions or meet the expectation. As a friend of mine recently said, jails would be empty if people were only motivated by rewards and consequences.

Instead, I encourage you to trade ABC for CPS, the Collaborative and Proactive Solutions model developed by Dr. Ross W. Greene ( I recently attended a training with Dr. Greene where he presented a Bill of Rights for Behaviorally Challenging Kids. Among other items, behaviorally challenging kids have the right to have their behavioral challenges understood as a form of developmental delay in the domains of flexibility/adaptability, frustration tolerance, and problem-solving. They have the right to not be misunderstood as bratty, spoiled, manipulative, attention-seeking, coercive, limit-testing, controlling or unmotivated. They have the right to have adults understand that solving problems collaboratively – rather than insisting on blind adherence to authority – is what prepares kids for the demands they will face in the real world. These are just 3 of the 10 rights that Dr. Greene – and I – agree that kids with “challenging behaviors” should have.

Problems with control of big emotions can and should be solved proactively by following Dr. Greene’s model, which I discuss in this blog: The practice involves first gathering information from your child’s point of view about the unsolved problem that you are noticing (NOT a behavior, but instead you will have phrased it as an expectation that is not being met). Once you have gathered information about what they think about that expectation and why they are having difficulty meeting it, you, as the parent(s), present your adult concern. This is the reason you have the expectation in the first place. Once concerns are on the table, you can begin brainstorming for solutions. With CPS, you do not come to the table with solutions in mind and the idea that you will sway your child to them. You need his or her input in order to really make these work! You can have the best ideas in mind (in your mind) but if your child is unwilling or unable to follow your solution, you are back at square one.

Many situations that test emotional control are highly predictable when you move “upstream” from the behaviors you can observe, and get deeper into what really caused them to occur in the first place. For example, difficulty waiting in line, difficulty taking turns with the game controller, difficulty stopping playing in order to eat/go to bed/go to school, difficulty completing spelling word homework, difficulty sitting at the table for meals… and so much more. The best news about this approach is that not only are the difficulties predictable, but that children themselves often have great ideas about how to solve their own struggles!

Once you begin to view emotional control as a skill set that needs to be developed and practiced, you start to have a mindset shift, or as Dr. Greene says, a “lens change”. The most beautiful thing I have witnessed is when parents “get it” and I can see their lens change. We can even take this a step further by noting that when we change our lens with all of our relationships, everything improves! All humans have expectations from the people in our lives. When expectations fail to line up with reality, we experience disappointment, irritation, anger, and all of those other terms that are at the core, definitions of cognitive dissonance.

If you are looking for more evidence and support for collaboration and seeing big emotions as a sign of lagging skill, I would also refer you to Dr. Mona Delahooke’s work in her book, Beyond Behaviors. In this book, Dr. Delahooke discusses the neurological basis of human behavior. She states that many behaviors represent the body’s response to stress, and not intentional misbehavior. She believes that we must customize the way that we speak with children in order to address their needs and individual differences, that there is no “one size fits all” approach to parenting or teaching children.

When I began Kids Empowered 4 Life two years ago, my aim was to focus on working with kids with ADHD, and their families. When I began working within the framework I created, I found that some of parents biggest struggles are related to kids big emotions and the behaviors that come from them. Frequently, the verbal and physical responses to their big emotions became a barrier to being able to engage in friend or family relationships, persisting in school work, meeting parents expectations, and knowing how to handle the unpredictable nature of life. We cannot separate emotional control from executive functioning skills, communication skills, social skills and cognitive flexibility skills. Big emotions is one part of the equation, and having some tools in the toolbox to be able to handle them both in the moment, and proactively, will be necessary for a lifetime.

I work with kids and teens ages 5 – 19 and their families on these concepts every day. If you feel that you and your family can benefit from my services, fill out this form to see if ADHD coaching is a good fit!