ADHD, emotional dysregulation

Let’s Talk Feelings

I’ll never forget the day I first used emotion coaching with my son who has ADHD. He looked at me, burst into tears and came straight over for a cuddle. I was in disbelief. This was in stark contrast to the screaming, spitting, destructive child who had been present a few seconds before.

Emotion coaching changed our family. Now, don’t get your hopes up that this is a quick fix to a child who is chronically emotionally dysregulated. This is not a magic wand. However, it is worth the effort! The frequency, intensity and duration of emotional dysregulation has significantly reduced at our place since starting this. I wanted to share our journey so you can give it a go for yourself and live in a less stressful environment – most of the time.

My understanding of emotion coaching comes from a range of influences. We did not do textbook emotion coaching and I am not a psychologist. Our approach was much more eclectic, based on our psychologist’s recommendations and what we learned from books.

If you want more information on emotion coaching and the strategies I talk about below, I highly recommend three books. These are Raising an Emotionally Intelligent child, How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk and The Whole-Brain child. Also, I would recommend that a professional helps you put into practice any new management plan or behavioural approach to ensure it is suitable for your child and family.

Let’s get started

Dr. John Gottman, PhD., has spent his career exploring the best methods for raising emotionally intelligent children. He determined that finding the emotional source of poor behaviour, not just managing a child’s poor behaviour was the key to raising emotionally intelligent children.

In his research, he identified 4 types of parents: dismissive, disapproving, Laissez-Faire & Emotion Coaching.

Dismissive parents will:

  • trivialise a child’s feelings
  • distracts a child from emotions
  • ignores feelings
  • shut down negative emotions

Disapproving parents will:

  • judge and criticise emotions
  • try to control emotions
  • reprimand/discipline/punish the child for expressing emotions

Children with dismissive or disapproving parents will:

  • think their feelings are invalid
  • not trust their own emotional responses
  • have difficulty regulating their own emotions

Laissez-Faire parents will:

  • freely accept all emotional expression from their child
  • won’t set limits around emotional reactions
  • offer no guidance through emotional reactions

Children with Laissez-Faire parents often:

  • don’t regulate their own emotions
  • have difficulty getting along with others

Emotion coaching parents will:

  • value negative emotions as an opportunity for intimacy
  • see them as an opportunity to teach their children
  • not judge or make fun of emotions
  • guide their child through emotions

Children with emotion coaching parents:

  • learn to trust their own feelings
  • learn to regulate their own emotions
  • learn to solve problems
  • often have high self-esteem and get along well with others

See the Raising an Emotionally intelligent child book for a self-test.

Where to start

So, how can we move towards that type of parenting style? Here were the stages in our family’s journey.

At the start of our journey, I was a dismissive and disapproving parent.

I hated when my children expressed negative emotions. It would start up my flight/fight/freeze response so, I would start using consequences straight away, to maintain the feeling of control.

It still takes a lot of effort for me to try not to control my children’s emotional responses by imposing highly strict control freak consequences. This never worked anyway, and I just ended up escalating their dysregulation.

Here is a real-life example, that would happen very regularly, with my son.

Son: “Mum can I watch TV?”

Me: “No mate. You’ve already watched screens today.”

Son: becoming angry and dysregulated “That’s not fair!”

Me: “I beg your pardon. If you don’t stop being so rude, you will lose screens for a week!”


Me: “Ok done! No screens for a week.”

Son: EXPLODES – swears, throws the remote, yells at me. “I HATE YOU!”

I would stand there thinking seething in anger. I was being a firm, non-permissive mother. I was not giving in, and I never did. This is what all our previous psychologists told us to do – be firm and stick with consequences. But the behaviour never improved, it was in steady decline – for years. This is what led me to the belief that my kids didn’t learn from consequences.

What I didn’t understand was that I was not only dismissing his feelings, but punishing him for sharing them with me. Sure, he may not have done it in the way I would have liked, but he wasn’t misbehaving.

I knew my style of parenting wasn’t working, so after lots of investigation, we settled on emotion coaching as our new strategy. We were skeptical at first. It did not make sense to me how allowing our children to have big emotions, would teach them to regulate their emotions. But I am so thankful now, that we did it anyway!

Step 2: Identify emotions – BOTH your own and your children’s emotions.

The first step in Gottman’s emotion coaching is to identify your child’s emotions. This is essential, but I found, it is equally important to identify our own.

Part a) Ask yourself what am I feeling when my child is dysregulated? Is my response to my feeling helping this situation or making it worse?

This step will take self-reflection and honesty. Are you fearful? Why? Are you worried about what other people will think of you or your child? Are you angry? Are you frustrated? What is underlying your response to your child’s emotional dysregulation?

As hard as it is to admit, I had three underlying beliefs that I needed to challenge to move forward.

  1. I didn’t believe that my children’s feelings were valid. After all, I provided all their needs and wants and they had an easy life.
  2. I felt that I was a terrible mother. A good mother wouldn’t have emotionally volatile, non-compliant kids.
  3. I was embarrassed and cared what people thought of me as a mother.

Where am I now?

During my years on the emotion coaching journey, I have learned:

  1. my children don’t have, and shouldn’t have to have, the same feelings to me.
  2. what may not seem like a big deal to me is a big to them, and I need to respect that.
  3. if our kids don’t get understanding with the little things, how can we expect them to share the big things.
  4. my children’s emotions have nothing to do with my parenting.
  5. their education and strategies to learn emotional regulation is up to me.
  6. I am doing the best I can do.
  7. I am not responsible for what other people think of me or my parenting.

I have been judged countless times in my almost 11- year mothering journey. For many years, that led to isolation, so I could avoid people seeing me as a bad mum. As any parent with a child with ADHD will know, you really have very little control over what they do in public.

But here is the bottom line. I will be judged no matter what! For having a child with ADHD, medicating my child with ADHD, not medicating my child with ADHD, letting my children watch TV, not letting my children watch TV, giving in to a child crying for chocolate in the supermarket, not giving in to a child crying for chocolate, being too permissive, or being too strict. No matter what you do, you will be judged and criticized, so commit to the type of parent you want to be, and be that!

I remember a time where I was sitting on the floor in Woolworths with a huge trolley full of groceries, riding out an extremely loud emotionally dysregulated child moment, after she was told no to getting a chocolate. A woman came up to me and said I was a horrible mother, and that I should give my daughter a smack, to stop her making a scene in a shopping centre.

I informed her that I am ok with my child making a scene in the shopping centre. The person huffed off, muttering under her breath about what a terrible mother I was. But you know what. I have never seen that person again. Ever. I had decided I was an emotion coaching parent and I stuck by that. About 10 minutes later, my child was happily helping me pack our trolley and, may I add, with no chocolate.

But what would have happened if I had imposed strict consequences, or spoken angrily at my child? I know what would have happened because I had done it before. I would have lost control of my emotions, my child would have continued and even escalated their emotional dysregulation, and I would have been horribly embarrassed and left the store feeling like a failure. But instead, I was in control of my own emotions, which allowed me to model, assist and train my child to regulate their own emotions, and we ended up having a good day. The best way to deal with a child in emotional dysregulation is to be regulated.

I know it seems straight forward in theory, however anyone who has been present with a child with ADHD having an emotional meltdown will know: this is not easy to do in the moment. Nothing sets off my emotional dysregulation like seeing my child being angry and hitting, punching, kicking, spitting and swearing or running away.

I encourage you to really take time with this step. I have added a printable for free download today to help you work out what is underlying your feelings about your child’s emotions. I find writing it down and looking for patterns really helped me learn about my responses and beliefs.

Part b) Our child’s feelings are just as valid as ours. Our children are trying to communicate their feelings, wants and thoughts to us. In order to truly teach our children emotional regulation, we need to know which underlying emotion to work through.

Through my investigation in this area, I found an invaluable tool called, the emotion wheel. This was originally developed by Dr. Gloria Wilcox.  I use it to really think about what underlying emotions a child (or yourself) might be.

What we might see as anger (Primary emotion), may actually be rooted in frustration, jealousy, anxiety, fear, embarrassment or even remorse (secondary emotion).

Just yesterday, my daughter had a massive meltdown over the fact that she wasn’t allowed to play a game on the PS4. Why? Because she had been given a consequence several days ago for damaging a screen, and so lost screens privileges for a week. Her siblings were allowed to play the game on the PS4, and so she was sad and unable to regulate her sadness. We sat together for a while having a cuddle, while she told me that I was a horrible mum for taking away her screens.

Now, I had a choice here: I could either dismiss her feelings and shut them down by saying something like, “Excuse me!!! You are the one who damaged the tv. This is what you deserve.” And, although that actually might have been true, I sat there with her, thinking through the possible underlying emotions behind her dysregulation. She was jealous that her siblings were allowed to have their screen time, but she wasn’t.

What’s next though?

Don’t impose consequences during emotional dysregulation. Ride out the storm, give your full attention to the child. They need your help and are struggling to inhibit their emotional response.

  • pay attention to what they are saying
  • acknowledge their feelings.
  • don’t judge their feelings, just listen.

The book How to Talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk, they recommend using little words like “oh”, “I see” or “mmm” at this time.  

I remember my daughter was having a hard day, with lots of sibling fights. She said to her dad, “I hate my sister”. My husband answered her straight away with “No you don’t!” She yelled back “I DO! I HATE HER!” I jumped in here and said, “Oh you’re feeling like you hate her?” She burst into tears and said yes. I responded with, “I see”.

Now of course, we don’t want her to hate her sister, but if that’s how she is feeling at the time, then I let her feel that emotion. Then, we can work through it and problem solve it once she is emotionally regulated.

Step 3. Help the child label their emotions, while listening with empathy and not shutting down their feelings.

Once you know what your child is feeling, tell them! “Oh, you are frustrated that I said no” or “You’re disappointed that I said no to chocolate!” We are not dismissing their feelings or telling them to stop having emotions. We don’t distract them, we don’t problem solve. We allow them to feel, and give them words for their feelings.

When not to use emotion coaching

When a child is endangering themselves or someone around them, you are not going to simply label their emotions. If they scream at you and look like they will run across a road, grab them! Emotion coach later. I love what Dr. Sam Goldstein, neuropsychologist, says “ACT! DON’T YAK”.

There are also times where we can still emotion coach, but not stay around. Saying something like, “You’re angry at me, but you can’t throw things at me. Let me know when you want me back”.

Children really do learn from this. Maybe not the first time, but with consistency they do. I will leave you with a funny story.

My son, around the age of 5, used to scream and yell a lot when he was dysregulated. Our response was always. “I can see you’re angry at me. When you have stopped screaming at me we can talk”. After many months of modelling this, I had a bad day. I came out yelling about something he had done. He held his hand up to say stop and said, “I can see you are angry at me, Mum. But I will not talk to you while you are yelling at me.” I burst out laughing. It had really worked!

Feel free to download the printable to help you get started on your emotion coaching journey. Leave a comment below if this has helped you and share with anyone who you think could use this!

Let’s get ADHD Done Differently!

What’s next?

Next week I want to share with you the next step in the process. It is an incredibly powerful step that helps children work through their emotions, build empathy, learn from past experiences and then problem solve for future dysregulation.

(c) ADHD Done Differently 2020

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