How To Get Kids To Share Their Feelings About Living With ADHD

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Mom helping her teenage daughter

You ask your child how he feels and despite his grumpy tone, slamming things on the counter, and gruff demeanor, he says,”fine.” 

Your child gets off the bus and you know something happened at school as she retreats to the basement with headphones on. 

You notice that lately your son has come home early from activities and does not reach out to his friends. Instead, he spends most of his time playing video games by himself.

Your daughter seems to be down — a mix of sad and anxious. You're worried that if you broach the subject of school and friends, she’ll reject your advice outright. 

It’s hard to be a parent today. It’s harder to be a kid.

Watching your kids go through hard times is a right of passage we all face as parents. As much as we wish we had the magic answers, sometimes, all we can do is watch as our kids struggle with their feelings.

Whether it’s friends (or a lack of friendships), feeling misunderstood, poor grades, or other social challenges in school, kids with ADHD have deeper burdens on their shoulders than many of their peers.

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Despite the neurotypical experience being socially accepted and embraced in some communities, often kids still feel left out and ostracized. Why seemingly “normal” challenges are so difficult is a pain most parents wish they could take away.

I’ve thought about this a lot. Helping parents understand what they can, and can’t do for their kid is a big part of my books and my work.  

The Importance of Emotional Intelligenc​e

The truth is, some kids lack the ability to understand and identify their emotions. Sometimes this is because they haven’t yet developed a strong mind-body connection. Not having the connection between what and how they feel interferes with their ability to identify “what I am feeling right now.” 

While your child may resist discussion, they may also struggle to identify what they are feeling altogether.  

Understanding emotions is a key aspect of coping with feelings, and one of the keys to having emotional intelligence.  As parents, we want our children to have the ability to cope with emotions rather than having their emotions rule them. 

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Nine parenting tips for helping your kid open up about how they're feeling

1. Start with small conversations.

It’s easy to be affected negatively by your child and their emotions (especially when those feelings are directed at you). But, by surrendering the conversation, you leave your child without critical guidance. 

Start by finding a consistent time or a positive place to talk. Break up the routine.

Spend time with your child one-on-one without siblings, and give your child the space to hear that you care and that you are worried. This time together will help your child feel comfortable opening up to you. 

Don’t impose your goals, just listen and remain open. 

2. Reflect, clarify, and be curious.

Kids and adults with ADHD often struggle to really “read the room” accurately. Learning to reflect, clarify, and be curious is a life skill everyone can benefit from. As a parent, paraphrasing and repeating back what your child says demonstrates empathy and helps clarify your concerns. 

For example, he might declare, “People should invite me to play — I shouldn’t have to approach them.” Reflect this statement back to him, “What I hear you saying is that you won’t approach anyone; they must come to you.” 

By summarizing and repeating his statements, you allow your child to share more information and to tell his interpretation of the statement. By being curious and trying to understand his perspective, you invite him to be comfortable opening up to you. 

Having a calm, empathetic and open conversation — even in the heat of the moment — allows your child to know that in the future, he can count on you as a partner rather than a judge.

3. Improve their emotional vocabulary.

Prompt your child to improve their emotional vocabulary so their ADHD carries a more in-depth set of experiences than the labels kids hear at school or from their peers.  This confidence building technique will give your child greater accuracy with their own feelings as well as understanding their world.  

If the child says a common word like “angry,” suggest other words like “disappointed”, “irritated” or “annoyed.”  Then, ask them to consider what word best labels her current state or emotions the best.

By doing this exercise often, you help your child deepen their emotional vocabulary bank, giving them a greater depth and breadth to pull from when someone asks “how are you feeling?”

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4. Teach kids about their brain.

The ADHD brain is just like every other brain in many ways. It still reacts to perceived “threats” with alarm and a cascade of emotions (even when the threat isn’t real). Even the mere perception of a threat can cause the brain to rush into the actions of fight, flight or freeze.  

Helping kids to understand how this mental flooding impacts their ADHD symptoms can raise their awareness.

Its vital they learn about what’s going on in their body when they experience sensations common in the fight/flight response such as a pounding heart, sweaty palms, etc. 

5. Teach them about the “Thinking Me vs. Reactive Me”.

There is a big difference between a thinking brain (one that encourages problem solving, learning and paying attention) and the reactive brain (one that encourages heightened emotional states and leads to big emotions such as arguing, yelling, becoming snappy or feeling flooded with feelings). 

For many people with ADHD, learning to pause is a game-changer when reactions often come fast and furious. Part of developing greater emotional control is to become more reflective and to tune into your emotional state. 

As kids learn how they react when in different emotional states, it helps them explore what actions or tones they use in a “thinking” vs “reactive” state. From there, they have options/choices to act differently and affect the world around them in a healthier way.

6. Label Emotions.

The better you are at identifying the right word to match different emotional states, the more confident your child will become at recognizing their own inner emotional state. 

When kids can identify, name, and process emotional nuances such as feeling hopeful, overwhelmed, disappointed or frustrated, they take a big step in identifying the true nature of their feelings or the feelings they are witnessing around them.  

7. Identify and help with obsessive & negative intrusive thoughts.

Many kids with ADHD ruminate, catastrophize, and label every setback or challenge as “the end of the world.” Helping your child recognize the signs of rumination is a big step in helping them gain some awareness of how their thoughts fuel their feelings. 

From a technical-brain level, some people are more prone to rumination due to an overactive cingulate gyrus — the gear shifter in the brain. If this mechanism in the brain gets “stuck”, cycling from thought to thought or activity to activity can be difficult. 

One way to help your child get unstuck is by showing them how to do an “emotional temperature body scan” to see what they are feeling in their body and mind. 

Start with the head and one body part or section at a time, ask your child to tell you what they’re feeling: 

  • What do you feel in your head?
  • What do you feel in your nose?
  • What do you feel in your mouth?
  • What do you feel in your neck?
  • What do you feel in your upper back? 

Then, ask your child to ask themselves, “Am I ruminating?” “Am I stuck?” If the answer is yes, engage in mindfulness practices to de-escalate the effects of rumination. 

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8. Perception vs. facts.

For many people in a heightened emotional state, it’s easy to get lost in the story or the details of an event.  For kids with rejection sensitivity as a part of their ADHD profile, this exercise of “perception vs facts” can be a game changer.

When your child seems reactive and is coping with emotions, help your child better understand the context of the situation and look at the story they are telling themselves as s/he ruminates. 

Show your child how to double-check their reasoning. Maybe they didn’t fully understand the comment, intention, or act?  

“What evidence is there that this story is true? What else could it be?” 

Then, work with your child to help alter their inner story by replacing negative thoughts with neutral thoughts. 

Instead of “I know she read my text yet won’t respond” consider reframing to, “she may not have read it, or she did read it but is busy and can’t respond right away.”

9. Use data to backup or interpret situations.

Your child may be ruminating because they are missing an important piece of information. When people ruminate, they are often caught in a loop around “why”.

For example, “Why did my friend look the other way?” or “Why didn’t they take my call?” or “Why won’t she hang out with me?"

Data is evidence. It’s not opinions, hunches or guesses. 

The ADHD mind that tends to fixate on negative thoughts that justify their painful feelings.

Data helps bring new reasons for these feelings. It also helps to address fight or flight feelings and bring your child back down from an emotional worry that has caused them to isolate or avoid friends, conversations or socializing.

Parenting is always harder when your child is avoiding you and emanating feelings of upset they won’t tell you about. Add in a dose of teenage angst and things can get really challenging.

 I’ll tell you this, teaching your kids at whatever age, the importance of a deep emotional vocabulary will help you in any emotional event you experience with them. 

Being a kid is hard, but as parents we can arm our children with the words they need to tell you accurately what they’re feeling at any time.

I can’t promise your child will become a chatterbox when they want to hide out and play video games, but I can promise you that with practice, you’ll both get closer to the truth when it comes to their feelings.

Practice these nine parenting tips to help you whenever your spidey senses are on full alert that something is going on.  It will make you a more confident parent and your child will know that they can trust you with whatever heartaches come their way.

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Caroline Maguire M. Ed., ACCCG, PCC founded and facilitates a comprehensive SEL methodology for adults, parents, clinicians, and academic professionals. She specializes in teaching development of critical social, emotional, and behavioral skills.

This article was originally published at Caroline Maguire's Website. Reprinted with permission from the author.