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The Link Between ADHD and Emotional Regulation

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by persistent patterns of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity. While these core characteristics are well-known, what often goes under-recognised is the profound impact ADHD can have on emotional regulation. Emotional regulation refers to the ability to manage and respond to emotions in a healthy and appropriate manner. Before we explore the link between ADHD and emotional regulation, it’s important to explain a little more about ADHD and how it affects those with the condition.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

ADHD UK defines the condition as:

a disorder that is defined through analysis of behaviour. People with ADHD show a persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with day-to-day functioning and/or development.’ 

The statistics show that around 5% of children have ADHD with slightly higher estimates of between 8% and 10% in the USA (where more children are diagnosed and treated). Of course, ADHD is not a condition that is limited to children. In the UK, the prevalence of ADHD in adults is estimated to be between 3% and 4%. In both children and adults, more males are diagnosed with the condition than females. 

Common symptoms of ADHD vary depending on the type of ADHD someone has, but generally, they fall into two categories: inattention and hyperactivity/impulsivity.


  • Difficulty paying attention to details and making careless mistakes in schoolwork or other activities.
  • Trouble staying focused on tasks or activities, such as during conversations, lessons at school or when reading.
  • Easily distracted by unrelated stimuli or thoughts.
  • Difficulty following through on instructions and completing tasks, especially ones that require sustained mental effort.
  • Forgetfulness in daily activities, such as forgetting appointments, forgetting homework, losing items or failing to complete chores or responsibilities.
  • Avoidance or dislike of tasks that require sustained mental effort, such as paperwork or homework.


  • Restlessness or fidgeting, such as tapping hands or feet, squirming in a seat or inability to sit still for extended periods.
  • Difficulty engaging in quiet activities and often being “on the go” or feeling restless.
  • Excessive talking, often blurting out answers before questions have been completed.
  • Difficulty waiting one’s turn in conversations or games.
  • Impulsive decision-making, leading to actions without considering potential consequences.
  • Interrupting or intruding on others’ conversations or activities without permission.

It is important to note that not everyone with ADHD will experience all of these symptoms and the severity can vary from person to person. Additionally, symptoms can fluctuate and may present differently in children and adults. Likewise, there are a lot of misconceptions about ADHD and it’s important that we dispel these myths. A diagnosis of ADHD should always be made by a qualified healthcare professional based on a comprehensive evaluation of symptoms and their impact on daily functioning.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

ADHD and Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation refers to the ability to recognise, understand and manage our emotions in a healthy and adaptive manner. It involves processes such as identifying and labelling emotions, modulating emotional responses and expressing feelings effectively in appropriate contexts. Essentially, emotional regulation enables us to work our way through the ups and downs of life whilst maintaining our wellbeing.

The Brain and Emotional Regulation

During childhood, children begin to develop the foundational skills needed for emotional regulation. This process is deeply intertwined with the maturation of their brains. To have a better grasp of how emotional regulation is affected by ADHD, let’s explore the concept of emotional regulation skills and how they typically develop in childhood.

  • Infancy (0-2 years)
    During infancy, the brain undergoes rapid development, particularly in areas related to emotional processing and regulation. Infants begin to learn about emotions through their interactions with caregivers who provide responsive and nurturing care. Simple acts such as soothing a crying baby or responding to their needs help infants regulate their emotions and form early attachments, laying the groundwork for emotional regulation skills.
  • Toddlerhood (2-3 years)
    In toddlerhood, the prefrontal cortex, which plays a key role in executive functions including emotional regulation, continues to mature. Toddlers begin to express a wider range of emotions and develop the ability to recognise and label their feelings. They learn through trial and error, experimenting with different strategies for managing their emotions. Caregivers play a crucial role in co-regulating their child’s emotions at this age and modelling healthy emotional expression. Many parents often find this age tricky when it comes to managing their child’s emotions and ‘big feelings’ – it’s often referred to as the terrible twos.
  • Preschool Years (3-5 years)
    During the preschool years, the brain undergoes significant growth in areas associated with language development, self-control and social understanding. Children become more adept at using words to express their emotions and communicate with others. They also begin to understand basic emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger and fear, and learn social norms for expressing and regulating these emotions in different contexts.
  • Early Childhood (6-8 years)
    In early childhood, the brain continues to refine its ability to regulate emotions and impulses. Children become increasingly skilled at using cognitive strategies such as self-talk, problem-solving and perspective-taking to regulate their emotions. They also develop a greater awareness of the consequences of their actions, allowing them to make more informed decisions about how to respond to different emotional situations.
  • Middle Childhood (9-11 years)
    By middle childhood, the brain’s capacity for emotional regulation is more fully developed, although refinement of these skills continues into adolescence and adulthood. Children become more able to recognise and manage complex emotions as well as understand the emotions of others. They also begin to develop a sense of empathy which allows them to respond more effectively to the emotions of others.
  • Adolescence and Beyond
    In the later stages of brain development, there are significant changes in the brain’s structure and function that continue to impact emotional regulation. These changes are crucial for refining emotional regulation skills. During adolescence, the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in executive functions including emotional regulation, undergoes further maturation. This process involves the strengthening of neural connections and the pruning of unused synapses, allowing for more efficient communication between different regions of the brain involved in emotional processing and regulation. At the same time, there is increased activity in the limbic system, which is responsible for processing emotions and generating emotional responses. This heightened activity can sometimes lead to increased emotional reactivity and impulsivity during adolescence, as young people struggle with hormonal changes, social pressures and identity formation.
The Brain and Emotional Regulation

ADHD and Emotional Regulation

For those with ADHD, their emotional regulation skills may not develop in a typical way and may diverge from the norm. Recognising signs of ADHD in children is not always apparent straight away and tends to manifest itself at various stages but, typically, the signs are spotted when children diverge from their peers in atypical ways.

  • Infancy and Toddlerhood (0-3 years)
    In infancy and the toddler years, difficulties with impulse control may already be apparent in those with ADHD. They may exhibit heightened reactivity to stimuli and struggle to regulate their responses. This can lead to more frequent and more profound emotional outbursts than would be typical as well as difficulty in returning to a calm state. Additionally, toddlers with ADHD may have more difficulties when it comes to communicating their needs and this can contribute to frustration and distress.
  • Preschool and Early Childhood (3-8 years)
    For children with ADHD, impulse control difficulties may become more pronounced. They may struggle to follow rules and engage in disruptive behaviours such as interrupting others or acting without thinking. These challenges can impact social relationships and academic performance as children with ADHD may have difficulty regulating their behaviour in structured settings. Additionally, difficulties with emotional expression may persist and the child may struggle to articulate their emotions and may become overwhelmed by intense feelings.
  • Middle Childhood (9-11 years)
    In children with ADHD, their symptoms of poor impulse control and poor emotional regulation may persist. Struggles to regulate behaviour in increasingly complex social situations are likely to be present. This may lead to difficulties in peer relationships and conflicts with authority figures such as teachers. The intensity of emotional response may continue to challenge as children with ADHD may experience heightened emotional reactivity and have difficulty in modulating their feelings in response to stressors.
  • Adolescence and Early Adulthood (12-15 years)
    During adolescence and early adulthood, young people with ADHD face developmental changes that may exacerbate their existing difficulties with impulse control and emotional expression. They may struggle with impulsive decision-making, risk-taking behaviour and emotional volatility, making it challenging to navigate the demands of adolescence and transition to adulthood.

Overall, ADHD impacts emotional regulation across various developmental stages, affecting individuals’ ability to manage their impulses and express their emotions effectively. Impulsivity can lead to individuals with ADHD acting on immediate desires without considering the consequences and this can lead to emotional reactivity. Additionally, the challenges with emotional expression and identifying and communicating emotions can contribute to frustration and dysregulation. Understanding these challenges within the context of developmental milestones is important for providing targeted support and helping those with ADHD develop and strengthen their emotional regulation skills over time.

Common Challenges Faced by Individuals with ADHD

Living with ADHD presents a unique set of emotional challenges that can significantly impact daily life. People with ADHD often struggle with a range of emotions that stem from their difficulties with attention, impulse control and hyperactivity.

  • Frustration
    Frustration is a pervasive emotion for individuals with ADHD, stemming from the daily struggles they face in managing their symptoms. Difficulty staying focused, staying organised and completing tasks can lead to feelings of frustration and inadequacy. Individuals with ADHD may become frustrated with themselves for their perceived shortcomings or with others who may not understand or accommodate their needs.
  • Anxiety
    Anxiety frequently co-occurs with ADHD as individuals may worry about their ability to meet expectations and handle responsibilities or cope with social situations. The unpredictability of ADHD symptoms and fear of failure can contribute to heightened anxiety levels. Additionally, difficulties with time management and planning may exacerbate anxiety about deadlines and commitments.
  • Mood Swings
    Mood swings are common in those with ADHD and are characterised by rapid shifts in emotional states. These fluctuations can be triggered by external stressors, such as academic or work pressures, as well as internal factors, such as medication side effects or hormonal changes. Mood swings may range from irritability and frustration to periods of heightened energy or euphoria, often leaving individuals feeling overwhelmed and emotionally dysregulated.
  • Rejection Sensitivity
    People with ADHD may experience heightened sensitivity to rejection or criticism, leading to feelings of inadequacy or low self-esteem. They may perceive minor setbacks or social interactions as evidence of personal failure, exacerbating feelings of anxiety and self-doubt. Rejection sensitivity can also impact relationships as individuals may withdraw or become defensive in response to perceived slights.
  • Impulsivity-Related Guilt
    Impulsivity can lead to actions or decisions that individuals later regret, resulting in feelings of guilt or shame. Whether it’s making impulsive purchases, speaking out of turn or engaging in risky behaviours, individuals with ADHD may struggle to reconcile their intentions with the consequences of their actions. This internal conflict can contribute to a cycle of self-blame and negative self-perception.

Working a way through these emotional challenges can be daunting for individuals with ADHD but with understanding, support and effective coping strategies, they can learn to manage their emotions more effectively and lead fulfilling lives.

Coping Strategies and Interventions

While living with ADHD presents unique emotional challenges, there are evidence-based coping strategies and interventions that individuals can employ to manage their symptoms effectively. By implementing these strategies, individuals with ADHD can develop greater emotional regulation skills and improve their overall wellbeing. Here are some approaches that have been shown to be helpful:

  • Mindfulness and Meditations
    Mindfulness practices, such as meditation and deep breathing exercises, can help individuals with ADHD cultivate greater self-awareness and emotional regulation. By focusing attention on the present moment and observing thoughts and feelings without judgement, individuals can learn to better regulate their emotions and respond more intentionally to stressors.
  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
    Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a therapeutic approach that helps individuals identify and challenge negative thought patterns and develop more adaptive coping strategies. For individuals with ADHD, CBT can be beneficial in addressing anxiety, frustration and impulsivity by teaching skills such as problem-solving, emotion regulation and stress management.
  • Organisation and Time Management Skills
    Developing effective organisation and time management skills can help those with ADHD reduce feelings of overwhelm and frustration. Using tools such as planners, calendars and reminder systems can help in prioritising tasks, breaking them down into manageable steps and staying on track with deadlines and commitments.
  • Exercise and Physical Activity
    Regular exercise has been shown to have numerous benefits for all of us, including those with ADHD. It can help improve focus, enhance mood regulation and reduce stress. Engaging in physical activity releases endorphins, which are natural mood elevators, and provides an outlet for excess energy. Activities such as yoga, swimming or martial arts can also promote mindfulness and body awareness.
  • Medication Management
    For some people with ADHD, medication is an effective tool for managing symptoms and improving emotional regulation. Indeed, for some, medication is an essential element that allows them to succeed in school or work and generally participate in a full, active lifestyle. Stimulant medications such as methylphenidate and amphetamines can help increase attention and reduce impulsivity, while non-stimulant medications such as atomoxetine may be prescribed for those who experience side effects or do not respond to stimulants.
  • Supportive Relationships and Community
    Building supportive relationships with family, friends, peers and healthcare professionals is essential for individuals with ADHD. Having a network of understanding and empathetic people can provide validation, encouragement and practical support when faced with ADHD-related challenges. Support groups and online communities can also offer valuable resources and a sense of belonging.

By implementing these coping strategies and interventions, individuals with ADHD can develop the skills and resilience needed to manage their emotions effectively and thrive in various aspects of life. It’s important to recognise that finding the right combination of strategies will require trial and error, and seeking professional support and guidance from a qualified therapist or healthcare provider can be beneficial in developing a personalised plan.

Emotional resilience is the ability to adapt and bounce back from adversity, challenges and setbacks. For individuals with ADHD, developing emotional resilience is crucial in managing the ups and downs of life. Building emotional resilience involves developing coping skills, fostering self-awareness and nurturing a positive mindset.

Coping Strategies and Interventions

Building Emotional Resilience

Emotional resilience is the ability to adapt and bounce back from adversity, challenges and setbacks. For individuals with ADHD, developing emotional resilience is crucial in managing the ups and downs of life. Building emotional resilience involves developing coping skills, fostering self-awareness and nurturing a positive mindset.

Develop Coping Skills

Learning effective coping skills can help those with ADHD manage stress, regulate their emotions and cope with challenges more effectively. We explored some strategies above, including mindfulness, exercise and developing organisational and time management skills.

Foster Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is key to building emotional resilience as it involves recognising one’s strengths, weaknesses, triggers and coping mechanisms. Individuals with ADHD can benefit from increasing their awareness of how their symptoms impact their emotions and behaviours. Keeping a journal, attending therapy and participating in mindfulness practices can help individuals develop greater insight into their thoughts, feelings and patterns of behaviour.

Practise Self-Compassion

Practising self-compassion and developing a non-judgemental attitude towards yourself is important, particularly for those with ADHD. Recognising that ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition and reframing perceived failures or setbacks as opportunities for growth can help people develop a more compassionate and resilient mindset. Practising self-care, setting realistic expectations and celebrating small victories can also foster a sense of self-worth and resilience.

Build Social Support Networks

Support networks can promote emotional resilience. Surrounding oneself with understanding, empathetic and supportive individuals can provide a sense of validation, belonging and encouragement. Seeking out support groups, connecting with peers who share similar experiences and maintaining open communications with family and friends can help individuals feel less isolated and more empowered to cope with challenges.

Focus on Strength and Positivity

Emphasising strengths and focusing on positive aspects of oneself can enhance emotional resilience in individuals with ADHD. Celebrating achievements, setting realistic goals and developing a growth mindset can help people build confidence and resilience in the face of adversity. By reframing challenges as opportunities for learning and growth, individuals can develop a more optimistic outlook and approach to life. 

Building emotional resilience is an ongoing process that requires patience, practice and self-reflection. By implementing coping strategies, fostering self-awareness, nurturing supportive relationships and maintaining a positive mindset, individuals with ADHD can develop the skills and resilience needed to thrive in the face of life’s challenges.

Promoting Understanding and Empathy

As we have explored throughout this article, people with ADHD face unique challenges when it comes to emotional regulation. Society needs to foster understanding, empathy and support for those dealing with ADHD-related emotional difficulties. Indeed, in an ideal world, we’d all support anyone with any kind of emotional difficulties, regardless of their cause. Here’s how we can promote a more supportive environment:

  • Education and Awareness
    Increasing public awareness and especially understanding of ADHD is crucial for reducing stigma and promoting empathy. Many of us will have heard the myths that surround ADHD, including:
    – It’s the result of bad parenting.
    – It’s a consequence of too much screen time.
    – Only children can be diagnosed with ADHD.
    – It’s something you will grow out of.
    – All kids with ADHD are hyperactive.
    – Only boys have ADHD.
    – ADHD is a learning difficulty.
    – ADHD is linked to having a poor diet (we’re looking at you, Joe Wicks!)
    Educating individuals about the neurobiological basis of ADHD, its impact on emotional regulation and the challenges faced by those with the condition can help dispel misconceptions and foster a more empathetic attitude towards ADHD.
  • Accommodation and Accessibility
    Providing adjustments and support services in educational, work and community settings can help individuals with ADHD thrive. This may include offering flexible deadlines, providing extra time on exams, implementing organisational tools and offering mental health resources. Creating environments that are inclusive and accessible to those with ADHD can help reduce stress and facilitate success.
  • Encouraging Open Communication
    Encouraging open communication and dialogue about ADHD can create a supportive space for individuals to express their needs and experiences. Creating support groups, peer mentoring programmes or online forums where individuals with ADHD can connect, share resources and offer mutual support can foster a sense of community and belonging.
  • Empowering Self-Advocacy
    Empowering those with ADHD to advocate for themselves is essential for promoting self-esteem, autonomy and resilience. Providing tools and resources for self-advocacy such as information about rights, reasonable adjustments and adaptations, assertiveness training and self-help resources, can help individuals with ADHD navigate systems and assert their needs effectively.
  • Promoting Inclusivity and Diversity
    Recognising and respecting the diversity of experiences within the ADHD community is essential for promoting inclusivity and empathy. Understanding that ADHD manifests differently in each individual and that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to treatment and support can help create a more inclusive and compassionate approach to addressing ADHD-related challenges.

By promoting understanding, empathy and support for individuals with ADHD, we can create a more inclusive and compassionate society where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

Final Thoughts on the Link Between ADHD and Emotional Regulation

Individuals with ADHD often face challenges when it comes to managing their emotions effectively. ADHD, as a neurodevelopmental disorder that is characterised by symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity, can significantly impact emotional regulation due to difficulties with impulse control and emotional expression. Throughout the various developmental stages, from infancy to adulthood, individuals with ADHD may experience emotional challenges that stem from their symptoms. However, by implementing coping strategies and interventions such as mindfulness, cognitive behavioural therapy and medication management, it is possible to develop greater emotional regulation skills and improve overall wellbeing. 

Overall, the link between ADHD and emotional regulation underscores the importance of recognising and addressing the unique emotional challenges faced by individuals with ADHD, while providing support and resources to help them manage their symptoms and lead fulfilling lives.

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About the author

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Laura Allan

Laura is a former Modern Foreign Languages teacher who now works as a writer and translator. She is also acting Chair of Governors at her children’s primary school. Outside of work, Laura enjoys running and performing in amateur productions.

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