ADHD series part VII: improve ADHD by understanding emotional intelligence
It was the morning of our wedding day, our ceremony was in a few hours and my wife and I could not have been happier. It was going to be perfect. Our families had gathered together, my wife looked incredibly beautiful, and the late November weather was holding just long enough for pictures to be taken.
That’s when things started to go south.
After pictures, my wife had given back her wedding ring so I could present it to her during the official ceremony. We had a short break and my wife—not wanting to go too long without her ring—asked to look at it. (She was really more excited about the new shiny ring than getting married to this big Shlub).
“Sure”. I reached for it in the breast pocket of my shirt, only to find that it wasn’t there.
Confused I checked all of my pockets, but knew it wasn’t anywhere else. I remember placing the ring in my breast pocket less than an hour ago. I checked each pocket on my person twice, and still no ring.
My wife thinking that I was kidding said “Jesse, you are SOOO NOT funny.”
A dark and foreboding feeling swept over me as I realized where the ring was and how disastrous the situation had just become.
I had thrown my wife’s ring down a laundry chute, leading to who knows where, with who knows how many other pieces of wedding rentals.
I knew it. My marriage would likely end before it had even begun.
I took off on a sprint with my father back inside the building. On the way, I explained to him that my first suit of the day had been a rental, after pictures I changed into my tuxedo and threw the rented items down a laundry chute. He tried to muffle his astonished laughs, but couldn’t.
We arrived at the laundry room a few short minutes later and explained what I had just done. Quick phone calls were made and several staff jumped in and got to work sorting the laundry.
Major crisis was averted, the ring was found and a marriage was saved. ☺
This type of thing happened to me all of the time growing up. You name it and I have lost it.
Wallets, phones, car keys, back packs, lap tops, debit cards, watches and yes- even a car or two. Don’t get me started on the amount of lost time I’ve spent in parking garages.
ADHD is something that hits close to home for me. Not hyper-active, but the inattentive type. At times, I feel like my brain is just overloaded and I don’t have enough working brain space to remember anything else. I have had to make major modifications in my life in order to survive.
My phone has a wallet built in that allows me to carry a Drivers License, Library Card, Debit Card and Credit Card. My keys are attached to a large lanyard that are almost impossible to lose, and I start every new therapy session with “My name is Jesse and I’m extremely forgetful.”
I have accepted this part of me as just “being forgetful” and have created a brilliant treatment solution for this.
I buy 2 of everything
I have no explanation for these complete lapses of attention, and although my friends and family are accepting of this personality quirk, I hate it and wish my brain operated like most other people I know.
It wasn’t until I went to graduate school that I started to figure things out. I learned about brain functions, emotional intelligence and self-regulation. After taking a hard look at my life and thinking about the happiest, most exciting days of my life, I recognized a startling pattern.
With nearly every significant life event or day of celebration, came an equally frustrating lapse of attention. Why was this?
I then focused on the opposite of those really happy days to see how my brain worked. My brain worked great.
I remembered distinctly how I felt and what I was thinking after a car accident involving a young child, a gruesome injury where I blew out my knee, and attending the funerals of my grandparents and close family friends.
I realized that during times of fear, anger and aggression my mind was always the most clear, sharp and focused.
I literally had a lifetime of proof that I could not regulate the feelings of excitement and joy. I could not handle excitement without the organizational part of my brain going AWOL.
I had stumbled into my own self-diagnosis of “Lacks Emotional Intelligenceitis”.
What is Emotional Intelligence?
Dr. John D. Mayer, Psychology Today describes Emotional Intelligence (EL) as, ”the capacity to reason about emotions and emotional information, and of emotions to enhance thought. People with high EI, could solve a variety of emotion-related problems accurately and quickly. Such individuals also know how to use emotional episodes in their lives to promote specific types of thinking. They know, for example, that sadness promotes analytical thought and so they may prefer to analyze things when they are in a sad mood when given the choice.”
Wow. Emotional Intelligence is recognizing that different emotions inhibit or prohibit thinking, and that making a conscious choice to feel a certain way can and will invite different states of mind.
When I first learned about this, it blew me away. I doubted whether or not adults let alone children could really do this.
Dr. Mayer goes on to say, “High Emotional Intelligence people also understand the meanings that emotions convey. High Emotional Intelligence people also know how to manage their own and others’ emotions.”
This sounds more challenging than it really is.
Emotional Intelligence can be broken down to these three skills
1. Emotional awareness is the ability to identify your own emotions and those of others
2. The ability to harness emotions and apply them to tasks like thinking and problems solving
3. The ability to manage emotions, including the ability to regulate your own emotions, and the ability to cheer up or calm down
Why is this skill set so challenging and problematic for kids with ADHD?
A 2011 study done by a hospital in Massachusetts suggested that “more than half of all people diagnosed with ADHD also have trouble regulating their emotions.” (General Hospital Pediatric Psychopharmacology and Adult ADHD Program, 2011)
Dr. Roberto Olivardia, a clinical psychologist and Harvard instructor shares this insight, “People with ADHD tend to have a hard time regulating their emotions. For instance, they report going from zero to 100 in just a few seconds…They report being emotionally hypersensitive. and don’t give themselves enough time or space to process their emotions.”
Interesting. That makes sense, but why why are they overly emotional?
Terry Matlen, MSW a psychotherapist and ADHD coach stated, “Their feelings also may be more intense. Watching a sad movie can push them into an episode of depression or crying. A happy event can bring on a manic type of excitement. People with ADHD have difficulty censoring strong reactions. They have problems inhibiting inappropriate behavior related to strong positive or negative emotion,” and it can take longer to relax. “What might take an hour for a non-ADHD-er to calm down from, could take someone with ADHD the whole day. Part of this is due to difficulty refocusing attention.”
The previous Massachusetts study also suggests that “ADHD clients become so engrossed in the emotional of the moment, that any sort of reflexive or normal pro-social response is at a serious disadvantage to the disproportionate emotion such as excitability and impatience.”
The mind simply cannot take it all in and is on emotional overload.
Being “caught up in the moment” is a real, clinically proven thing. If I had only known this growing up!!! The excuses I could have come up with. Back to being on overload-the emotions of the moment are so real, vibrant, pleasurable and controlling that the executive functioning aspects of the brain are pushed to the back of a very long line.
This makes sense, seems simple enough to explain to parents, but how do we teach this concept to kids?
It’s much easier to just go for the emotional ride, than to stop and methodically think:
“Am I forgetting something?” or
“Do I need to be somewhere right now?” or
“Have I left anything anywhere behind today?”
I just laughed out loud as I wrote that last question remembering that I left my sand wedge on a golf course last week. I nailed a gnarly 15 foot uphill braking putt, started celebrating with high fives and chest bumps, only to have the greens keeper track me down on the next hole and bring back my wedge. Clearly I’m still working on my own EI ☺
The struggle is real.
5 Tips to Improve Your Child’s Emotional Regulation
1. Correct them when they criticize themselves
Dr. Oliviardia stated, “First and foremost, understand that emotional regulation issues in ADHD are neurologically based. It has nothing to do with being too emotional or too sensitive. Accept that you are an emotional being but need some boundaries to your emotions.”
Children need to practice positive self-talk and to laugh at themselves. Teach them what this looks like. “Hey-that was kind of dumb that I forgot my lunch again. Tomorrow I’ll have to leave my lunch by the front door so I trip on it before i leave for school.”
2. Teach them how to handle interruptions
When inattentive type children are in the middle of a project, homework or a chore-don’t bombard them with questions and small talk. Transitioning in and out of conversations and activities when trying to focus is challenging and maddening.
Avoid interrupting when possible. When are focusing and being productive, it feels great and they love it. When they do need to be interrupted, teach them how to put something down for the time being and reassure them that their task and more importantly their thoughts will still be there when they return.
One suggestion is to have them say out loud or write down their last thought before walking away from a project. This gives them a starting point when they return.
3. Help them set physical boundaries
Teach them to set boundaries when they are working on a project. If they become angry and frustrated when they are interrupted, teach them to be clear on when they can or can’t be interrupted.
Think about this. Your child has been putting off a book report all week because they are caught up in the emotions of everything else going on around them. They procrastinate until the very last minute, their anxiety and adrenaline rise and they get down to work. They are finally in a place to focus all of their energy and attention on the book report, only to be interrupted by little sisters, nagging parents, or the TV. Pretty frustrating right?
Help them by putting up a “Do Not Disturb” sign around their work space.
4. Help them set emotional boundaries
Teach them to set emotional boundaries particularly around really big events. Dr. Olivardia suggested that instead of letting them watch all day coverage of a national disaster for example, tell your child what has happened, explain the natural affects of the disaster and then help them unplug from it.
If you have a big event coming up i.e. birthday party, wedding, family reunion etc. Practice with them what it will look like to leave. Role play with them what they will say and do when their friends have to go home. Remind them that they had fun and that their friends are welcome to come back another time.
5. Practice self-soothing techniques
Help your children recognize when and how they are feeling most stressed out, overwhelmed or overly emotional. Help them find self-soothing techniques like exercise, deep breathing, or reading. Be empathetic, encouraging as you teach them that they can be in control and still experience the thrill ride of life.
That’s a wrap
Helping children understand emotional intelligence is vital to their success. They need to learn that self-soothing is the art of managing emotions, not avoiding them. The control comes in the ability to harness emotions rather than being lost in them.
My wife still teases me about losing her wedding ring on our first day of marriage, but fourteen years in and she still wearing that ring every day. I remind her that my brain could not handle the excitement of being married to her, and thank her for asking for her ring back when she did or it would have been lost for good…kind of like the one she gave me.
Speaking of which has anyone seen that? It’s a gold band with our initials engraved on the inside.