ADHD and the Challenge of Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation can be one of the most challenging aspects of ADHD. To help students with ADHD develop strategies for managing their emotions, we have to understand the connection between emotional regulation and ADHD.

“ADHD is not a mood disorder. It’s a failure-to-regulate mood disorder,” explains ADHD expert Russell Barkley, Ph.D., in an article on ADDitude. The article continues:

When an emotion is generated, the limbic system connects with the prefrontal cortex, which is tasked with managing that emotion. The cortex pauses, assessing the significance of the situation, calculating the costs of reacting outwardly, and suppresses actions not in our best interest.

The frontal cortex is like a security checkpoint. But in the ADHD brain, the neurochemical connectivity needed to guard that checkpoint is weak, allowing emotions to stampede past the security gate and wreak havoc with outbursts.

Some of the most effective strategies students can use to help regulate their emotions are as simple as getting enough sleep, not letting themselves get too hungry, and letting out difficult emotions through exercise.

Another strategy, according to the article, is to help students use their frustration and anger in a positive way. Basically, when you get angry you’re generating a lot of extra energy that doesn’t have a productive place to go. What you want to do is take that energy and use it to do something positive. But how do you do this? The post suggests asking these three questions:

  • “What’s triggering me — what’s underneath this?”
  • “What do I care about that’s making me angry?”
  • “What could I do to use that energy to move forward with this thing that’s making me angry?”


By teaching students to ask themselves these questions, we can help them channel their angry energy into problem-solving. I’m going to use this strategy with my students — and try it in my own life!

What are your thoughts on the challenges of ADHD and emotional regulation? Let us know in the comments!

  • Elizabeth Ross, M.A., SMARTS Media Manager