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Refocused Podcast Highlights: Emotional Dysregulation

By Todd Murphy

Tyler Dorsey and Katelyn Mabry both have ADHD.

And for both of them, having ADHD was — and can still be — a struggle. But they’ve turned their understanding of ADHD into a strength. And now they’re helping others with ADHD.

Dorsey is now owner of Focus Forward and an ADHD Coach, working especially with high school students. Mabry is an author and host of a podcast for kids with ADHD.

They were hosts of a recent ADHD Online webinar — How to Survive the School Year — that focused on understanding emotional regulation and executive function in students with ADHD. Some of their thoughts were also part of recent episode of ADHD Online’s “Refocused” podcast.

We wanted to share a sampling of what they talked about:

About the “emotional dysregulation” that is often part of ADHD:

Mabry says adults — both parents and teachers — discipline the behavior that is the result of the emotional dysregulalation that often comes with ADHD without understanding or dealing with the core cause.

She says: “A lot of times it’s kind of stopped in its tracks and then the child doesn’t learn how to process it or learn how to find a calm or learn how to grow that skill. Instead, it’s kind of just we put a stop sign up and say, ‘Okay, you can’t act like that.’ Or ‘you can’t express yourself like that.’ And so I think it starts with us as parents, and we can advocate for our kids in schools, to educate them on the fact that there is this emotional dysregulation piece that they’re going to see in different ways at school.”

Dorsey recounted an outburst she had as a child when she came home from school and her mother asked her to put just-baked chocolate cookies in a plastic bag. She crumbled up every cookie to stuff them into a too-small bag, and threw the bag at her mother when her mother became upset.

“A couple years later, when I started learning about ADHD, I reflected back on that time,” Dorsey says. “And I remember, distinctly remember, earlier that day I had gotten a test grade back and I had failed that test and I came home emotionally charged from that, feeling stupid, feeling like I was letting my family down again. All these things. And I was also prepared for my mom to see that grade and start yelling at me because I had failed again. So as soon as I got a calm ‘Please put the cookies in this bag,’ I snapped. And so I think it’s recognizing on the home front — even though in that moment I would not have been able to talk to my mom about what was going on — it’s finding that safe space at some point to say, ‘Can we talk about what was going on in your brain?'”

Mabry: “Sometimes the teachers aren’t seeing it at school as much, but then we see it as parents at home because kids learn to internalize and kind of cope, use coping mechanisms. And then they feel safe at home to express themselves. And it’s like a volcano. So I think that recognizing that for what it is, is huge. Because again, we still often just discipline it and move on from it, but then nothing’s learned from it. And they’re confused too, at that age. When they’re younger, they don’t recognize that they’re dysregulated. Introducing those terms at a young age can be super helpful for their self-awareness and they’re identifying what’s going on in their mind and emotions.”

About executive function issues in people with ADHD, including children:

Dorsey: “My favorite way to describe executive function is it’s the piece of the brain that tells every other piece when to do its job and how to do its job. So how I love to describe it is: It’s like the conductor of an orchestra. And that conductor spent all of this time leading up to the big concert helping each piece, each instrument, learn how to play the piece and helping them get the timing right and how do we make this all come together to form one really pretty sound, pretty piece of music.

“That’s what executive function is. It’s the conductor of our brain. It’s the piece of our brain that is telling time management, organization, planning, prioritizing, memory, well, all the things.

“And executive function (for people with ADHD) is just like, it can be built up, we can improve our executive function … but we are not starting from the same place with executive function that the boring brain — as I like to call it — is. The normal brain, the neurotypical brain, to me is a boring brain because I love my brain. But we don’t start in that same space. … We struggle intensely with motivation, attention, impulsivity, hyperactivity, all of those things. And it’s because we don’t have the conductor there.”

How — with adults or children with ADHD — it’s not about “putting in more effort.”

Dorsey: “I think the most common thing I hear from every single parent who I have ever talked to with a child with ADHD is: ‘They are so smart and capable if they would just put forth a little more effort.’ And the message I want to say is the effort that you’re talking about is the lack of executive function skills. We don’t need to try harder. That’s not our issue. We need to be trying in a different way. We need to understand our struggles are so much more than ‘we just don’t want to do it.'”

How parents, and other adults, can help:

Mabry: “If we can start young with our kids and lean into their strengths … and build them up with what they can do and help them figure out how to navigate and learn in new ways what they struggle with, I think that that shift in perspective will just change the trajectory of how kids with ADHD grow up and how they function in a classroom and how they approach different situations. I think it’s just so important that, as parents, we come alongside our kids and they feel like we’re alongside them instead of hovering over them. I think that that positioning is important — so they feel like you’re on the journey with them. What are we projecting to our kids? What kind of mindset are we projecting? What kind of language are we using around ADHD? Is it negative or is it superpower-strength based?”

Mabry adds: “I think just that empathizing with them and helping them know that they’re not alone in how they think and feel. Because it can feel very lonely having ADHD, if you don’t feel like other people understand what’s going on.

“I felt very alone in my diagnosis. And I think that’s where my passion comes, especially with kids, because I don’t want them to feel like I felt. I don’t want them to think they’re alone. I don’t want them to feel confused about how their brain’s working or why they’re emotionally expressing themselves in certain ways. I want them to grow confidently in the brain that they’ve been given, and see the beauty in it and see the amazing gifts that it brings.”

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If you want to hear more of what Dorsey and Mabry had to say, you can listen to the webinar.

You can also listen to their Refocused podcast episode, or listen to other Refocused episodes.

October — ADHD Awareness Month — is a special month for the Refocused podcast. We will be providing a new podcast every day of the month — 31 podcasts in all. The podcasts will feature the stories and voices of ADHD — men and women of different ages and backgrounds, talking about what ADHD has meant in their lives. Our goal is to share these stories, so others can see they are not alone.

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