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Emotional Dysregulation and ADHD: The Overlooked Connection

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If you or a loved one has ADHD, there could be more to it than simply attention problems. Half of children and adults with ADHD also suffer from deficient emotional self-regulation (DESR), which make it difficult to have normal emotional responses to stimuli and causes irritability. If you are suffering from the emotional side effects of ADHD, read on to learn about the nutrient deficiencies that could be causing emotional outbursts.

ADHD is a disorder that affects about ten percent of children and four percent of adults. Most people think of ADHD as a condition that means children have trouble sitting still or concentrating, but that is just one side of ADHD.

According to recent studies, ADHD has an emotional side that affects half or more of children diagnosed with ADHD. These children typically suffer from poor impulse control which may make it harder for these children to regulate their emotions.

Studies on ADHD and Emotions

In previous decades, one of the biggest criteria for diagnosing ADHD was poor emotion control. However, in the 1980s and 1990s, the emotional criterion was dropped from the ADHD official diagnostic list because many health practitioners recognized signs of attention problems or concentration problems in children who did not have emotion dysregulation. It was thought that emotion control and the hyperactivity/attention issues that children with ADHD have were two separate issues.

However, recent studies have suggested that ignoring the emotional side of ADHD may have been a mistake. A study from 2011 published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that half of the children diagnosed with ADHD have poor emotion regulation, called deficient emotional self-regulation (DESR).

These children have frequent bursts of anger, frustration, excitability, or impatience. Every emotion the child has is extreme. In the 2011 study, researchers examined 83 people, who either had ADHD and DESR, ADHD alone, or no diagnosed condition. 128 siblings of these children were also enrolled in the study. The study authors observed the children for symptoms.

The study authors found that half of the individuals with ADHD had DESR and ADHD was more common in siblings of individuals with diagnosed ADHD. The study authors found that even when other mental issues were not present, such as depression or bipolar disorder, the study participants still reported trouble with emotion control.

“We found you can individually remove any of the major mental health conditions that we inventoried and people still are reporting these kinds of irritable, emotional overreactions,” the study authors stated.

In 2014, a follow-up study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry studied the potential causes and treatments for the emotional side of ADHD. The study authors examined multiple studies on how emotion control works in individuals with ADHD and proposed two theories for why individuals with ADHD tend to have poor emotion control.

Bottom-up theory

The researchers found that individuals with ADHD have trouble learning the right emotional response from a young age. Adults with ADHD have more child-like responses to emotional stimuli and have not learned to regulate emotions. Both children and adults with ADHD also tend to have trouble reading emotions as well as individuals without ADHD, which could add to the confusion.

Top-down theory

The 2014 study authors stated that in a healthy person, "autonomic nervous system function tracks the valence of emotional stimuli and task demands, with greater top-down regulatory activity when stimuli are negative rather than positive."

However, individuals with ADHD cannot adjust their top-down regulation as well as children who do not have ADHD. This suggests that the attention problems associated with ADHD could have an emotional effect as a person must pay attention to emotional signals to produce the correct response. When the brain has trouble focusing attention, it could result in poor emotion control during periods of stress because the brain cannot process the correct response as quickly as it should.

The study authors found that children with ADHD were far more likely to fall apart under pressure than individuals without ADHD.

The Symptoms of ADHD

ADHD symptoms can be ambiguous and some medical professionals may diagnose ADHD when it is not present. Just because a child is active or does not want to focus on school does not mean that she or he has ADHD. The difficulty in full identification of ADHD has caused some individuals to believe that ADHD doesn't exist and is simply the result of poor parenting or a broken school system.

However, parents who have children with true ADHD, particularly children who also suffer the emotional side effects of the disorder, know that ADHD is real. Only a qualified psychologist or medically-trained individual can diagnose ADHD, but parents usually have a good idea that their child has ADHD before the official diagnostic test.

Currently, the DSM-5 criteria for suspected ADHD includes three separate types of ADHD. Impulsive/hyperactive, inattentive, or a mix of the two. A child must have symptoms before the age of 12, have symptoms present in multiple settings, have symptoms severe enough to interfere with normal functioning, symptoms must have been present for six or more months, and the symptoms are not better explained by another mental disorder.

Symptoms of  ADHD


  • Poor emotion control
  • Frequent irritable outbursts
  • Easily frustrated
  • Fidgets
  • Cannot stay seated
  • Runs or climbs in inappropriate situations
  • Talks excessively
  • Has trouble waiting
  • Interrupts others



  • Fails to pay attention to details
  • Makes careless mistakes
  • Moves from activity to activity
  • Does not finish tasks
  • Does not follow through on chores, school, or work
  • Is easily distracted
  • Loses things easily
  • Doesn't like to engage in mentally challenging tasks
  • Has trouble with organization
  • Does not listen when spoken to

Controlling the Emotional Side of ADHD

Studies suggest that over half of children and adults with ADHD have problems regulating their emotions. This makes it harder for them to get along with siblings, co-workers, friends, family, and significant others. Poor emotion control can have huge disadvantages in professional and personal life, which can trigger low self-esteem and lead to trouble with the law and poor decision making.

When treating ADHD, it is vital to consider the emotional side of ADHD. The Center for Disease Control reports that children and adults with ADHD report lower self-esteem, a higher risk for depression, a higher risk for breaking the law and engaging in risky behavior, and additional trouble keeping relationships and jobs. However, the outlook is not entirely bleak.

Studies show that treatment can be effective in helping both the impulsive and inattentive sides of ADHD as well as the emotional side. A study from 2010 published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that two-thirds of patients with ADHD who received at least 12 sessions of cognitive-behavioral sessions had a 30 percent reduction in symptoms over individuals who received medication alone.

The current recommendation for ADHD treatment is a combination of medication and therapy, although not all insurance companies will cover both treatments.

Can Nutrition Help Regulate Emotions for ADHD?

Many parents and adults are scared to consider medication as a permanent treatment for ADHD- and for good reason. Some of the side effects of ADHD medication can be quite serious and may even make emotion control even worse. Medication hardly seems like the right choice for children if it will make some symptoms of ADHD worse.

Some nutrients have been linked to improving the attention symptoms of ADHD, including:

But can these ingredients also help the mood regulation side of ADHD? Take a look at what the science has to say below:

Omega 3

In a review of three studies on Omega 3 supplements and mood, a study from 2009 published in CNS Neuroscience and Therapeutics found that "Omega-3 fatty acids were shown to be more effective than placebo for depression in both adults and children..."

Zinc and Copper

Studies from the 1960s on individuals suffering from schizophrenia published in the International Review of Neurobiology found that individuals who are schizophrenic are more likely to be low in zinc and high in copper. Increasing the intake of zinc was shown to decrease some of the symptoms of schizophrenia and improve emotional control and return copper levels to normal.


Individuals with ADHD are often low in iron. A study from The Lancet in 1996 found that when girls who were low in iron were given iron supplements, not only did their memory and learning ability improve but their moods also improved.


A 1995 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders stated that decreased GABA function leads to a variety of mental health issues, such as depression and mood disorders. GABA levels are typically lower in individuals with ADHD and other mood disorders. Boosting GABA levels can help regulate the mood-related symptoms of ADHD.


Numerous studies suggest that magnesium plays a huge role in mental disorders. Magnesium is used to help regulate nervous system responses and helps regulate emotions and prevent depression. As individuals with ADHD are often prone to mood swings and depression, supplementing with magnesium could help alleviate some of these symptoms.

Vitamin B6

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, vitamin B6 has been associated with regulating mood and boosting the body's natural production of serotonin. Low levels of serotonin have been associated with low mood and depression and many individuals with ADHD also tend to have lower levels of vitamin B6.

Emotional Dysregulation: The Forgotten Side of ADHD

If you or a loved one suffers from the emotional side effects of ADHD, there are treatments available even if you do not want to turn to traditional ADHD medications. Behavioral therapy combined with a boost in vitamin and nutrient intake can provide a balance that will help not only control the attention problems associated with ADHD but also help control mood and help make it easier to regulate emotions.





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