If you have a child with ADHD, she likely experiences strong emotional outbursts as well.
This is because kids with ADHD are more prone to be emotionally impulsive, which means they are more easily frustrated, impatient, excited, angry and annoyed than other kids who are the same age, sex and developmental level as them.
In fact, between 50-70% of kids with ADHD have symptoms of emotional impulsivity. Parents often wonder why these episodes happen, and what can be done about them. As a child psychologist specializing in ADHD, I think this is an important distinction to make. If we seek to understand why they act the way that they do, it may be easier to help them prevent and manage their emotional outbursts. Here are some steps parents (and even teachers!) can take:
Steps to Help Kids with ADHD Manage Their Emotional Outbursts
1. Understand why kids with ADHD struggle
At its base, ADHD is a disorder of self-control and managing emotions is simply one part of that. Kids with ADHD have an underlying weakness in inhibition that negatively impacts executive functioning. Executive functioning is our brain’s self-management system, which helps us plan, get things done, and regulate our emotions.
2. Consider their developmental level
The executive functioning in kids with ADHD can vary moment to moment between age-appropriate and that of a child 2/3 their age. Therefore, when they’re having trouble managing their emotions in the moment, parents should consider their developmental level, not their age, when responding. For example, a child who is 10 years old, but is acting like a seven year old, should be responded to like a seven year old.
3. Provide as much stability and consistency as possible
Use consistent limits, predictable routines, and household rules. It may even help to post these in your house. Further, either-or statements can help where your child tends to get upset when told to do a task that isn’t part of the predictable routine.
4. Provide supports where they tend to struggle the most
Identify the moments in which your child tends to meltdown most often. I recommend implementing tactics that help support this external executive functioning weakness at the place and time he tends to have the most difficulty.
For instance, many children have a difficult time getting ready for the day and the constant reminders often result in an emotional meltdown. It may help to provide a list of pictures in her bedroom of everything she needs to do for the day, such as get dressed, brush teeth, and put shoes on, rather than giving verbal reminders.
5. Help them understand their feelings
It is important to help kids understand their feelings so that they can begin to identify their own emotions and more accurately put them into words. Over time, this may help them react with words rather than raw emotion and physical aggression. I recommend:
- Talking about your own emotions and labeling them appropriately.
- Encouraging them to talk about their own feelings (the heat of the moment may not be the best time to do this, however).
- Helping them to understand that while it’s not always okay to act on their feelings, it is always okay to talk about them.
- Avoiding saying things like, “Don’t be said” or “You shouldn’t be angry about that,” because all feelings are normal and should be accepted.
- Modeling good emotional self-control in your own interactions with your child. Try to avoid yelling and threatening.
- Praising your child’s efforts to calm down, even when those efforts are not fully successful.
6. In the heat of the moment, react calmly
I realize it is difficult to react calmly to chaos. However, raising our voices, expressing negative emotion, and using a harsh tone of voice is like putting kerosene on an already burning fire. I recommend saying something like, “I see that you are upset. As soon as you calm down, we can discuss it.” Minimizing eye contact and walking away to give your child space to cool off may also help. Further, if your child is receptive to it, try coaxing him to use self-calming strategies, such as slow, deep breaths or other relaxation techniques.
7. Accept your child’s emotions and responses
It may be helpful for parents to recognize that their kids’ emotional outbursts are not intentional, nor are they deliberate attempts to make your lives difficult. This includes both outward acceptance to your child and internal acceptance. Verbally acknowledging your child’s emotions in the moment may prevent it from escalating further. “I can see that you’re upset. Maybe stepping outside will help you calm down.”
Likewise, as parents, we may be able to deal with these challenging moments better when we have an attitude of acceptance towards these confrontations. They are a part of our lives and accepting them for what they are may help us approach them with more calmness.
8. Seek help for frequent outbursts
If your child is having frequent emotional outbursts, it is critical to learn the behavioral strategies that are most effective in managing it. We have found that when kids’ ADHD is better controlled, their emotional outbursts tend to reduce in intensity and frequency as well.
We offer two, 8-week parent groups to help parents understand and manage their child’s ADHD. You can find further details about these programs, including how to register, on our Center for ADHD’s website.