Our brain is like a double story house. It has both an upstairs and a downstairs.
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Downstairs is the primitive part of our brain, where all our automatic and basic functions are located (e.g. breathing, swallowing). It is where our limbic system triggers primary emotions and impulses and where the flight/fight/freeze response originates. It is basically in charge of keeping us alive.
Upstairs is where the higher-level mental processes happen. This is where our executive functions are – in the penthouse! This part of the brain helps us think before we act, regulate our emotions, and show empathy. This is the logical brain.
The downstairs brain is developed, with early reflexes, impulses and primary emotions when we are very young. The upstairs brain, however, continues to develop until we are approximately twenty-five years old… that is, in a neurotypical brain. Research suggests that an ADHD brain’s development is approximately 5-6 years behind at this age, and therefore a person with ADHD may not have the executive functions and upstairs brain fully developed until their early 30s.
When our downstairs mind activates (because of fear or anger, for example), we basically demolish the staircase between the two levels and so can’t access the upstairs. In other words, we lose our ability to effectively use our mental processes and be logical.
So, when our child with ADHD has an intense emotional reaction to something, they are not capable of accessing their logical thought and forethought; their upstairs brain isn’t working. Their downstairs brain is only thinking of either:
- fighting, which can look like hitting, kicking, spitting or screaming.
- fleeing, which can look like running away, slamming doors, storming off or
- freezing, which can look like shutting down, hiding or even shaking or tensing up.
So, when we attempt to punish a child or reason with a child while they are in meltdown mode, it is like beating our head against a brick wall. It is only going to make things worse!
Now, of course, our brain isn’t really a house, but it is a fantastic analogy to explain what happens in the brain during emotionally intense times. This is not my analogy; it is Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Bryson’s analogy from their book: The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. I highly recommend this book if you want to read more about the upstairs/downstairs brain, as well as a lot of other fantastic insights.
But, what does this have to do with emotional dysregulation in children with ADHD?
Allow me to walk you through an example that happened several years ago. My son had finished his daily screen allowance on the PS4, although he was continuing to play his game. I told him to turn the game off and come to join the family at the dinner table. This is where his dysregulation began. It started with annoyance and frustration, although quickly escalated to yelling and arguing. He very loudly told me he didn’t want his dinner and he wanted to keep playing his game. I made the choice (not a great choice, I’ll admit!) to turn the PS4 off. This is when he began throwing things, stomping around the house like an elephant, screaming, and finally stormed out of the house, slammed the door behind him, and declared he was going to run away forever.
My son’s downstairs brain – that is, his primary emotions and the fight and flight responses – had been activated. The staircase to his upstairs brain was no longer accessible and, in that moment, he was unable to think logically about the consequences of his behaviour. He was having extreme difficulty regulating his emotions and had very limited strategies to self-soothe and regulate himself. He was out of control. Telling a child at this point to calm down or start up with imposing consequences for their emotional response is futile. We are asking our child, who currently has no access to their logical brain; to use their logical brain to stop an emotional response. We will not teach them anything here by disciplining them for their emotional reactions.
When we are out of control, we can’t be logical, use forethought or problem solve. We know from my previous blog post that at this stage, children with ADHD struggle to inhibit their emotions, which leads to longer and more intense displays of emotion. At this stage, our job is to maintain our calm, identify the underlying emotion our child is feeling and then label those feelings, without judgement. The aim of process is to support our children back down into their settled emotional range, where they can access their upstairs brain again. This may take a while at the beginning, but the more frequently we do this, the easier it is for the child to de-escalate because they know that you are going to listen to them. So, ride out the storm.
The NEXT step
Once you have ridden out the storm, and your child is back into a calm and settled emotional range, you can now begin to coach them. This is where we get to teach emotional regulation, not just expect them to use skills that they do not yet have.
This is NOT a magic wand. It takes time, but it is worth the effort.
One of the first strategies our psychologist taught us for parenting our son with ADHD was this coaching method. It is a simple five question process that brought about significant change in our family. I really encourage you, if you have a psychologist, to talk through this method and see if it will work for you too.
When you start using these strategies to coach your child, you may feel like they are extremely repetitive – especially if your child is having meltdowns several times per day! However, repetition is essential for children to learn. The other great thing with repetition is that your children will learn these questions so well that it becomes their schema for self-reflection. Children with ADHD have a significantly more difficult time self-reflecting on their behaviour.
It’s also important to note that these need to be done as soon as possible after the child has returned to their calm state. Children with ADHD live in the right now, and the longer the time between the meltdown and you teaching them emotional regulation strategies, the less powerful the teaching moment is.
So, with a non-judgemental and empathic tone, work through the following questions with your child:
- “What happened?”
Just listen here. Encourage your child to use a calm voice and explain how they saw things. Don’t say anything here – remember the aim is to be non-judgement. If they say “I don’t know!” (and they probably will at the beginning) you can outline the events, but don’t make judgements here.
Simply state the facts in a calm manner: “I asked you to turn off the TV and you yelled at me, then threw the remote and left the room”.
2. “How were you feeling when that was happening?”
Help them identify their feelings here. For a while, my kids always just said “angry” or “sad”. Here we always encouraged a bit of exploration, “Oh, you were angry and frustrated, because you were enjoying the game and I told you to stop.” Now, my kids will come out with lots of different emotions and reasons behind those emotions. What I have also found is that they can now identify it at the time of the emotional outburst. “I am SOOOOOO ANGRY AT YOU!!!!”
If your children are young, or have language or learning difficulties, then using a visual here can help to help them identify their emotions. You can download one as part of this week’s FREE download, at the bottom of the blog.
3. How do you think the other person felt when that was happening?
This is a really important step because it teaches children empathy, and encourages them to think about how their actions impact other people. When we started asking our children this question, I was initially shocked by their answers. My children with ADHD honestly struggled to identify the impact they had on others, and often would continue to blame the other person involved in the altercation. For example, if I asked my son this question at the beginning he would have said something along the lines of “You didn’t care about me” or “You just wanted to spoil my fun”, or even “It was your fault that I did it”.
So, I began turning it back and asking them to be in the shoes of the other person. For example: “When you yelled at me and threw the remote, how do you think I felt?” or “How would you feel if I yelled at you and threw the remote?” We often had discussions about how their reactions made me, and other people in our family, feel scared or unsafe. It was interesting that when my children realised this, it was often a turning point in getting them to realise they needed to apologise.
4. How can you fix the situation?
This question isn’t as easy as just wanting our child to apologise, although that is a part of the response we hope to get when we ask this question. However, it is important for the child to understand why they need to apologise and work through the process of coming to that decision themselves. Don’t force the child to say sorry. Of course, at the beginning you may need to model this for them and encourage them to do so.
This is also where the natural consequences of their behaviour are also discussed. Natural consequences are outcomes that are not imposed but happen naturally as a result of behaviour. For example, if a child takes a lunchbox snack from the pantry after being told not to, they will not get a snack in their lunchbox the next day. It is important for our children with ADHD to see and understand connections between their behaviour and what happens to them and in their direct environment, because of those choices.
I have found that consequences are so much more powerful and effective when they are discussed and implemented, not just imposed. Discuss and brainstorm these as a team. Some examples of this may be:
- If they threw the remote, they pick it up and put it back on the TV.
- If they punched or kicked a hole in the wall, they help fix it, and do chores to pay for the damage caused.
- If they say something nasty to their sister, they could write a letter of apology, or make them something special.
The biggest rule with consequences is to make them natural and make them related to the incident. Remember that just inflicting consequences won’t automatically change the child’s behaviour next time. We must also give them strategies to use.
At this point, you might be thinking, “Wait a minute! This isn’t punishing my child for what they did! I would make them lose screens for a month!” I’ll be honest, that’s what I was thinking as I began this process too! However, I want you to really think about this and ask yourself whether those type of consequences actually work?
I know for my children they didn’t. I would take screens off them for a week after an incident like the one I described, and then give them back in one week, and we would go through the exact same incident a week later. Why? Because I never actually gave them strategies to deal with the situation. I just expected that they would somehow learn by me taking away privileges that they should act differently. But they didn’t.
This leads us to the final question:
5. Next time this happens, what could we do differently?
This is also a very important step. This is all about brainstorming together what strategies they might be able to implement next time the situation happens. This is also the time for you to collaboratively problem solve to stop this same escalation happening next time.
(Collaborative problem solving, or now known as Collaborative and Proactive Solutions [CPS], is really worth looking into. I am not going to go into it in this post, but I will at some time in the future. I highly recommend the book The Explosive Child (Dr. Ross Greene) which goes into detail about collaborative problem solving, if you are interested in the meantime).
I have found the more input your child with ADHD has in this step, the more likely they are to take ownership and actually implement the strategies. This process takes time, but there is usually a solution that can stop future meltdown from happening. My son came up with the following solutions:
“Next time you could give me a 5-minute warning. Or you I could have my screen time earlier so I don’t have to turn the TV off right before dinner, and instead we can turn the TV off for a fun activity.”
Amazing! Our kids really can problem solve, when they are in control and supported to do so.
I’ve included a visual today to remind you of all the steps you can go through to keep your cool, emotion coach and guide your children to great behaviour. Keep it on your fridge or somewhere to remind you of the steps. It helps!
The emotion visual is also included in this download.
Let me know how you go in the comments below!
And let’s get ADHD Done Differently.