Having a Child with ADHD is not only exhausting but can also be pretty scary, especially if your child has an angry streak.
One minute, your kids are playing a board game and the next, you’re trying to protect your running interference. The board game is on the floor and your ADHDer is screaming and throwing things at his sibling.
We’ve been there.
Why do children with ADHD blow up?
Children with ADHD tend to be much more emotionally and socially impulsive than their neurotypical peers.
Unfortunately, we can’t control who will get caught in the crossfire. And what’s worse, you might find that your own temper flares ups!
It’s important to remember that it’s completely normal for any child to struggle with controlling his emotions.
In fact, studies show that neurotypical children begin becoming aware of their need to control emotions between the ages of 5 and 7. Typically, they’ll seek out an adult to help them deal with emotional disturbances.
Between the ages of 7 and 10, neurotypical children begin to possess some moderate coping skills for their own emotions.
So why then, does it seem like your ADHDer is so much more emotional than his neurotypical peers? Put simply… regulation.
Your child’s ADHD means that he doesn’t have the ability to regulate those emotions. And when his emotions get really big, really fast, he can’t think through the consequences of displaying that emotion. This is due to an underdeveloped Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC).
Often the child will regret their behavior almost immediately. Unfortunately, that regret can lead to panic and then in turn, defensiveness. Needless to say, it’s a big emotional mess inside your little one’s brain.
So how can we, as parents, help our kids calm down and avoid an emotional breakdown?
This is really a two-sided answer.
Part 1: Calming down in the middle of a blow-up Part 2: Building our Calm Down muscles for long term success.
But let’s start with Part 1.
4 Fast Action techinques for Calming ADHD Anger.
1| AVOID THE POWER STRUGGLE
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When a child with ADHD blows up you have to remember that this is not his rational side. This is that feeling of anger that boils up in your chest and makes you feel like you’re going to blow.
Everybody has experienced this at some point in time. However, a child with ADHD is not capable of telling their body to stop and think before they react.
Dr. Hallowell, an ADHD expert calls this “having a Ferrari engine with bicycle brakes.”
Yikes. That’s an accident waiting to happen.
Now, remember how we mentioned that a child with ADHD most likely already realizes that their reaction was out of line? And remember how that leads to panic and defensiveness?
Well… what if… You made him feel like you were on his side?
In the middle of an ADHD Anger Meltdown, the best thing that you can do is simply avoid a power struggle.
Rather than yelling at your child or telling them to calm down, try this instead.
2| Give your child a Hug
Studies show that when we suppress the central nervous system it has a calming effect on our emotions. This is why special education teachers use weighted lap mats to help in the suppression of fidgeting and frustration.
However, a weighted mat or blanket isn’t the best compression device. A firm hug will do a much better job. Not to mention, this will catch your child off guard and will let them know that you’re always on their team.
Just be prepared, anger sometimes melts into tears of regret when we give hugs.
Don’t worry about talking about the behavior yet. Let your child get a handle on those big emotions first. Afterward you will have plenty of time to discuss the behavior and come up with solutions for staying calm
3| Use mindfulness techniques.
Often, in the middle of a blow-up, children are too upset to use mindfulness techniques on their own. But you may be able to help them with this by being a calm secondary Voice
But what are mindfulness techniques? Basically, it’s the idea of feeling your body in space and thinking about it. Thinking about your thinking. Thinking about the way your body feels. Thinking about the way you’re breathing etc. Scientists call this “cognitive thinking”.
Much like meditation (which we will come back to you about later) mindfulness convinces your body to slow down and think cognitively. Or in other words about itself. Some mindfulness techniques you could try are counting to 10 breathing deep breath‘s finger tap tipping as I show you in the video below.
While teaching preschool, I developed a little mindfulness technique that my students used to use when they were feeling fidgety. You can see it here.
4 | REDIRECTION
Redirection is a practice used frequently by preschool teachers. This is mainly because all preschoolers are somewhat incapable of handling their own emotions.
I’m sure you can draw the parallel here. A child with ADHD, has about that same level of self-control.
If you don’t believe your child is capable of using a technique like mindfulness, redirection can be a great gateway.
My favorite way to do this is with hand squeezing. Whenever my ADHDer is flying off the handle, I like to grab both of his hands in both of my hands. Then I give a series of snug squeezes. Sometimes, if he’s really having a rough moment, I’ll do a little rhythm.
Take Both of your child’s hands in your and squeeze.
Another option is to just simply do something silly. Do whatever you have to do to make your child laugh. That may mean tickling them, making a funny face, or even doing a cartwheel.
At this moment your job is to disconnect your child from their emotions, just for a moment, so that they can think rationally. Once they’ve disconnected and gotten calm, then we can focus on talking about the behavior.
These tips are great for short-term wins, but what about the long-term? Is there any way to get your child’s ability to think cognitively?
ABSOLUTELY! As I mentioned above, your child’s lack of regulation is believed to be due to an underdeveloped ACC. And you absolutely can strengthen it using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques!
How to build your child’s emotional regulation muscles
Meditation is very similar to mindfulness with one BIG difference. Meditation is not necessarily an “in the moment” strategy. In fact, it’s best used as a daily exercise to increase our ability to be intuned with our senses.
For someone with ADHD, sitting still and thinking about nothing is a HUGE challenge. I’ve heard the ADHD brain being referred to as an “idea factory.” You just can’t stop the thoughts from flying around in there.
Because of this, you’ll need to adjust your expectations for your child. Do not expect much the first time. In fact you’ll be lucky to get an entire minute of sitting still.
I absolutely suggest timing this so that you can watch your child’s progress. Within a few weeks, you may be able to hit the 3-5 minute mark!
One thing to keep in mind is that if a child is taking medication, he will react differently to this exercise then if he was not on the medication. Obviously, doing this while on the medication will not give you a “good read” of his abilities.
As a side note: You may want to consider trying this while he’s on medication once as well. This could be a great experiment to determine how well your child’s ADHD medication is working.
This website has some FANTASTIC resources for teaching your child to meditate.
2 | ENCOURAGE NEGOTIATION
Wait… seriously? A lot of ADHD children have a natural knack for negotiation. They want what they want and they will beg and plead and negotiate to get it. And guess what? You can USE THAT to your advantage. Like a car salesman welcomes negotiation, you can encourage your child to think about consequences by negotiating a “deal.”
Does he want an extra hour of screen time? Not a problem, you can have extra screentime if you clean your room and put the dishes away.
Does she want a late bedtime? Sure, she can stay up late but she’s only allowed to read in bed during that time.
Negotiating like this forces your child to consider whether or not their “want” is worth the “cost”. At first, they’ll likely agree to things that seem crazy to you. And if you follow through with the “cost,” they’ll soon start realizing that it’s not worth it.
3 | OUTPATIENT CBT
All of the techniques in this article are derived from Cognitive behavioral therapy practices. And doing them at home will greatly increase your child’s ability to regulate.
But going to an actual therapist can come with some huge benefits. The therapist will be able to look at your individual child and pinpoint the exact therapies to work on. These sessions are usually done on an outpatient basis and it’s something that your insurance most likely will pay for, especially if you have been giving state or county insurance because of your child’s diagnosis.
Sometimes you can even attend cognitive behavior therapies as a family. Family programs are definitely my favorite because you learn techniques that can be implemented into your daily life!
What happens in a cognitive behavior therapy session?
Your child will be placed in a room with a therapist. Most likely, the therapist will be dressed down in order to put your child at ease. He or she may sit with your child at the table, or may even sit on the floor with your child.
On your first visit, the therapist will likely observe your child playing and/or ask him a lot of questions. This is a reference point for the therapist to know what to work on.
In the following sessions, the therapist will likely bring specific items to “work on” with your child. Usually, this includes toys, games, puzzles, etc.
The therapist will then play with your child and measure his ability to maintain focus, stay calm, etc. (What your therapist measures will be specific to your child’s goals.)
The therapist will do a lot of redirecting and may even use some of the techniques we mentioned above in order to increase your child’s ability to meet his goals.
What happens in a family cognitive behavior sick therapy session?
In a family session, the interaction between you and your child is the focus.
Typically, you will be placed in a room with your child that has a two-way mirror. You will be given an earpiece that is connected to a therapist who is watching your session.
As you and the child play, the therapist will lead you in how to model appropriate behaviors and manage your child’s inappropriate responses to things.
In this type of session, the therapist’s job is not only to assist your child, but to assist YOU in learning to manage him.
Remember: Emotional regulation is an on-going learning experience.
Unfortunately, parents usually tend to give up on teaching there ADHDer to control their emotional reactions. And that’s totally understandable!
This is a life skill that many adults still struggle with. As we get older, our problems carry more consequences. And needless to say, that brings more stress.
Higher stress levels = more emotions… etc etc.
Having ADHD only makes that more complicated. That means that helping your son or daughter angry blow-ups is going to be a life-long journey.
If you do it well, you’ll be lucky enough to get a phone call from your 24-year-old daughter at 10 pm because she just got frustrated with her husband. If she’s seeking solace in you, mama, you’ve done your job.