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  • The Brown Clinic

Emotional Dynamics in individuals, couples & families with ADHD

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

Case Study #1: A 7-year old who feels picked on by adults.

Seven-year-old Jimmy’s mother met him at the front door as he came home from school. She gave him a hug and asked “How was school today?” Jimmy dropped his school bag and jacket on the floor in front of the door and, without answering, headed toward the kitchen to find a snack. His mother called him back to pick up his jacket and school bag. Jimmy came back with a grumpy face and announced, “School was terrible; it’s always terrible. She’s always yelling at me just like you are now! His mother responded, “I wasn’t yelling at you, I just asked you to come back to pick up your jacket and school bag and put them where they belong, not just leaving them in front of the door.” Jimmy picked up his stuff grumbling, “It’s always that way, you and my teacher and my soccer coach, all of you are always yelling at me and saying that I did something wrong or didn’t do something I was supposed to do. Nobody else ever gets yelled at so much all the time.”

Young children with ADHD, especially if it is not effectively treated, often complain that their parents, teachers, and other adults are constantly yelling at them. This “yelling” may sometimes involve angry comments with a raised voice; though often it is simply a matter of very frequent reminders and corrections that may be necessary, but they may leave the child feeling singled out, far more often than other children, as the one who is not doing what is expected. Many teachers and parents of children with ADHD report that they need to give reminders or corrections to those with ADHD as much a five to ten times more often than to most of their classmates or siblings.

Even when these frequent corrections are done with minimal intensity and without any overt annoyance, the impact on the child’s view of self may be substantially impacted. When this pattern goes on with much daily frequency for many years, as it does for some children with ADHD, the result is often a combination of feeling picked on, unappreciated, and incompetent, relative to others of similar age.

One antidote to this problem is for parents and teachers to find or create frequent opportunities to recognize when their child is doing something well so they can give recognition or praise for doing the right thing. In the routines of daily life, it is easy to mention mostly the actions one finds frustrating or wants to see changed, while not mentioning much at all those actions one would like to see more frequently.

When a child complains about others being too critical or getting too irritable with them, it may be helpful to listen to the child’s complaint and perhaps offer some empathy or validation, “Yeah, it’s not much fun to feel like you’re always the one getting told you’re in the wrong. Sometimes it may be that you really are doing something you should change, but other times it may be that the grown up is just having a bad day.” Sometimes such complaints are an indirect way of asking for some recognition and encouragement to counter frustrations of the day.

There is no single profile of emotions common to all individuals with ADHD. There is much diversity due to differences in age, temperament, personality style, family life, cultural background, and many other variables. Yet there are some ADHD characteristics and some situations often experienced by many with ADHD (and those involved with them) that cause particular patterns of emotional dynamics to emerge more frequently among these people. This chapter describes some emotional dynamics often reported by children, adolescents or adults with ADHD and those who interact with them.

The palette of human emotions is rich and variegated. It includes happiness, enthusiasm, interest, disinterest, boredom, delight, worry, fearfulness, panic, terror, frustration, annoyance, anger, rage, pride, envy, embarrassment, shame, guilt, jealousy, disappointment, discouragement, grief, hopelessness, sadness, depression, longing, trust, optimism, expectancy, determination, affection, passion, love, hope, and many others.

Emotions are dynamic in that they often change and interact, sometimes in an instant, sometimes over hours, weeks or years. Often they change in response to specific circumstances of a situation, what someone else says or does and how individuals perceive and react to one another in given moments and over time. Sometimes emotions are quite transient, a flash of anger or a moment of jealousy, pride or affection that may quickly be modified or replaced by other emotions which may be quite contradictory. Emotions also may be persistent over much of a lifetime, absorbed into the fabric of one’s personality across differing settings.

Emotions vary not only in type, but also in intensity. Sometimes emotions arise with fierce or crushing intensity; at other times that same emotion may be scarcely noticeable. Emotions also vary in level of consciousness. Sometimes a person is fully aware of a particular emotion in a given moment, yet at another time that person may be totally unaware of an emotion that others readily recognize and respond to.

In all persons, emotions tend to arise in multiple mixes and blends. Sometimes the blend is subtle and convergent—affection and longing, pride and hope. In other instances, emotions strongly conflict with one another— interest and fear, pleasure and guilt, pride and resentment, love and hate. Sometimes the conflict is immediate; in other instances, one emotion may be followed quickly or gradually with another, or a person may experience rapid alternation between one emotion and another. Examples described may be experienced by various individuals in many different ways, only one of which is included in the case study above.

Brown, T. E. (2017). Emotional Dynamics in Individuals, Couples, and Families Coping with ADHD. In Outside the Box; Rethinking ADD/ADHD in Children and Adults (pp. 151–170). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association Publishing.

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