• Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder;
  • emotional lability;
  • affective lability;
  • emotional dysregulation

Background:  The goal of this study was to investigate the occurrence, severity and clinical correlates of emotional lability (EL) in children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and to examine factors contributing to EL and familiality of EL in youth with ADHD.

Methods:  One thousand, one hundred and eighty-six children with ADHD combined type and 1827 siblings (aged 6–18 years) were assessed for symptoms of EL, ADHD, associated psychopathology and comorbid psychiatric disorders with a structured diagnostic interview (PACS) as well as parent and teacher ratings of psychopathology (SDQ; CPRS-R:L; CTRS-R:L). Analyses of variance, regression analyses, χ2-tests or loglinear models were applied.

Results:  Mean age and gender-standardized ratings of EL in children with ADHD were >1.5 SD above the mean in normative samples. Severe EL (>75th percentile) was associated with more severe ADHD core symptoms, primarily hyperactive-impulsive symptoms, and more comorbid oppositional defiant, affective and substance use disorders. Age, hyperactive-impulsive, oppositional, and emotional symptoms accounted for 30% of EL variance; hyperactive-impulsive symptoms did not account for EL variance when coexisting oppositional and emotional problems were taken into account, but oppositional symptoms explained 12% of EL variance specifically. Severity of EL in probands increased the severity of EL in siblings, but not the prevalence rates of ADHD or ODD. EL and ADHD does not co-segregate within families.

Conclusion:  EL is a frequent clinical problem in children with ADHD. It is associated with increased severity of ADHD core symptoms, particularly hyperactivity-impulsivity, and more symptoms of comorbid psychopathology, primarily symptoms of oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), but also affective symptoms, and substance abuse. EL in ADHD seems to be more closely related to ODD than to ADHD core symptoms, and is only partly explainable by the severity of ADHD core symptoms and associated psychopathology. Although EL symptoms are transmitted within families, EL in children with ADHD does not increase the risk of ADHD and ODD in their siblings.