“I hate school!”
“I’m no good at writing!”
“I am the worst friend!”
These statements, and others like them, express a lot of emotion!
Many children and adults with ADHD do have strong feelings and reactions. That’s because emotional regulation is often a challenge for individuals with ADHD. Feelings can flare quickly and intensely and can sometimes take a while to subside.
As a parent or loved one of an individual with ADHD, this emotional reactivity can be tricky to respond to. Many typical responses backfire, leading to more explosive expressions or to internalized self-judgment. Take a look:
- If you try to provide reassurance – for example, “It’s not really that bad.” – you minimize the feelings of the person, essentially invalidating their own strong feeling.
- If you try to interject your view of reality – “You do well at school!” or “But you wrote a great paper last month!” – you are also invalidating their point of view.
- “You’re over-reacting” is a judgment of your loved one.
- Labeling – “You’re too sensitive,” for example – is also a judgement and is invalidating.
- Trying to fix the feelings – for example, “Come on, it’ll be OK – let’s get a snack”- also invalidates and fails to respond to a heartfelt communication.
- Offering solutions prematurely – “We can get a tutor.”- fails to acknowledge the feeling(s) expressed.
At the same time, you don’t necessarily want to agree with your loved one who is having such strong feelings in these circumstances, adding flames to the emotionally reactive fire. It’s not helpful, for example, to say things like, “I know what you mean, that school is terrible!”
So what is effective?
Are you familiar with the term “validation”? Validation is a particularly useful communication approach that lets you accept the feelings of another person as a valid expression of thoughts and feelings in a particular circumstance, without at the same time having to agree with them.
Validation, according to Dr. Karyn Hall, means describes “[t]aking another person’s thoughts and feelings seriously, both recognizing and acknowledging.” She adds that using validation “leads to a more increased sense of well-being and calm for everyone. Additionally, any request made of someone is more effective if it begins with a statement acknowledging the other person’s needs and concerns.”
Validation can take many forms, according to Hall:
- providing complete attention, setting down your work and tuning in, even if the feelings you are hearing make you uncomfortable
- reflecting the other person’s statements – “Sounds like you really hate school!”
- identifying possible unexpressed emotions – “Are you also feeling disappointed about how your test went today?”
- expressing understanding of the whole person – “I can see why you’d hate school when you keep getting poor grades on your tests.”
- normalization – “Lots of kids feel that way when they have a difficult experience at school.”
- a genuine sense of connection – “I hated school in sixth grade too !”
While invalidating responses can lead to increased emotional upset, validating has many benefits:
1) Validation assists in emotional regulation and calming someone who is upset.
2) Someone who feels validated is more likely to open up in conversation.
3) Validation contributes to self-respect and the development of a stronger identity.
4) Problem-solving abilities and resilience improve with validation.
5) Validation builds connection and strengthens relationships.
6) Practicing validation improves ease and happiness in family life.
Validating is easier to understand than to do, but practice makes it come more naturally – so experiment with it as often as you can, and gradually you’ll build your skills! You’ll feel better about your communication, and your relationship(s) will benefit from your much needed understanding.
(Note: if you are emotionally reactive yourself, try self-validation too.)
For more information on how to use validation, see:
- Hall, K. (2012, April 26). Understanding validation: A way to communicate acceptance.
- Harvey, P., and Penzo, J. (2009). Parenting a child who has intense emotions.
Oakland CA: New Harbinger Publications.
The following book/workbook for teens includes material on self-validation, among other useful strategies for managing emotions:
- VanDijk, S. (2011). Don’t Let Emotions Run Your Life for Teens. Oakland, CA: Instant Help Books.
A type of therapy – being used in some places in Europe as a treatment approach for ADHD – that emphasizes validation and other skills for managing strong emotions is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). (See also this article on DBT and ADHD.)
For skills groups and individual coaching for parents on using validation and other skills of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (which includes validation and other approaches to working with strong emotions):
Photo credit: artur84, www.freedigitalphotos.net