ADHD and Emotional Dysregulation
By Stephen V. Faraone, PhD
One of the many great contributions of Dr. Russell Barkley was his conceptualization of ADHD as a disorder of self-regulation. ADHD people have difficulties regulating their behavior, which lead to the classic diagnostic criteria of hyperactivity and impulsivity and they have problem regulating cognitive processes which leads to the well-known inattentive diagnostic criteria for the disorder. In a 2010 paper, Dr. Barkley argued persuasively that deficient emotional self-regulation should also be considered a core component of ADHD alongside deficient behavioral and cognitive self-regulation. Although the DSM 5 did not add any emotional symptoms to the revised criteria for ADHD a new paper by Graziano and Garcia supports Dr. Barkley’s position. They conducted a meta-analysis of 77 studies of emotional dysregulation that comprised a total of 32,044 participants. They defined emotional dysregulation as the failure to modify emotional states in a manner that promotes adaptive behavior and leads to the success of goal directed activities. They identified three types of emotional dysregulation: emotion recognition and understanding (ERU), emotional reactivity/negativity/lability (ERNL) and empathy/callous-unemotional traits (ECUT). ERU refers to the ability to perceive, process and infer one’s own emotions and the emotions of others. ERNL refers to the intensity and valence of the emotional response. Reactivity refers to the rapidity of the emotional response (e.g., is a person quick tempered rather than reflective); negativity refers to the valence of the emotion. Is it extreme or appropriate to the situation; and lability refers to how quickly emotional states shift or cycle over time. The ECUT dimension has two poles. At one extreme is the empathic person whose reactions are guided by a clear understanding of the emotional states of others. At the other pole is the psychopath who shows little or no emotion to stimuli that evoke strong emotional reactions in the average person. When the data from the 77 studies was sorted into these three categories, the authors found that ADHD people had impairments in all three domains. The magnitude of impairment was a bit greater for ERNL than it was for ECUT and ERU, but not dramatically so. The association between ADHD and these domains of emotional dysregulation increased with increasing age. It is for this reason that some ADHD experts think that emotional dysregulation should be included in the diagnostic criteria for adult ADHD. Because behavioral hyperactivity diminishes with age, these criteria are less sensitive for adult ADHD than they are for child ADHD. Substituting emotional dysregulation items for hyperactivity items could, potentially, improve diagnoses of adult ADHD. Future work will address this issue. In the meanwhile, those who screen and diagnose adult ADHD should be aware that symptoms of emotional dysregulation might be the most prominent for some adults with the disorder.
Barkley, R. A. (2010). Deficient Emotional Self-Regulation: A Core Component of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Journal of ADHD and Related Disorders 1, 5-37.
Graziano, P. A. & Garcia, A. (2016). Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and children’s emotion dysregulation: A meta-analysis. Clin Psychol Rev 46, 106-23.