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Understanding and managing ADHD Tantrums & Meltdowns

by Suzanne Wintner, MSW, LICSW, PhD

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Parenting is a lot like a long-distance road trip: there will be scenic highlights, long stretches that go by in a blur, and a few panicked “Are we lost?” moments along the way. Parenting a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is like taking that trip in a car that might arrange its own detour or speed through an intersection –– an eventful ride to say the least.

If you are a parent of a child with ADHD, you are well aware that between the fun, excitement and creativity your child brings to the world, they also bring a whole lot of unexpectedness. Sometimes that means them feeling completely overwhelmed and overloaded, and falling apart in what looks like a tantrum or meltdown. Understanding your child’s behavior, being aware of your child’s triggers, and having a strategy in place to help manage the emotional regulation symptoms of ADHD can help you avoid obstacles and breakdowns while journeying through life.

What is an ADHD meltdown?

Children who are diagnosed with ADHD often struggle with hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattentiveness. At times, these behaviors can lead to a child having difficulty with self-control and expressing their emotions. When they’re having a hard time and feeling sad, disappointed, frustrated, or upset, they may express their negative emotions through an angry outburst or temper tantrum.

As a parent, it’s important to recognize this as a symptom of ADHD versus misbehavior. Due to having ADHD, your child may have a more difficult time with emotional regulation than their peers and may need some additional support working on things to help such as anger management techniques exploring ADHD medications to mitigate these issues.

How to identify an ADHD meltdown

Parents of young children are all too familiar with the red flags that signify that an incoming meltdown; irritability, frustration, and defiance can all serve as warnings that bad behavior emotions could escalate at any moment.

However, if your child frequently goes into meltdown mode with very little warning, if your child seems particularly aggressive, hostile, violent, or has an extremely difficult time calming down, it may indicate that there is an underlying mental health concern. If you are noticing such meltdowns, it can be helpful to talk to your child’s primary care provider about ways to support your child.

ADHD tantrum triggers

Triggers are situations that cause a reaction. The triggers that are the catalyst for a behavioral reaction, like a tantrum, are different for every child. Because these triggers can be so unique, It can be helpful for parents to recognize the triggers that may cause an angry outburst for their child.

One way to do this is to pay careful attention to the circumstances that most likely to lead to a tantrum or meltdown. Was your child hungry, tired, too hot or too cold, bored, or overstimulated? Did a series of small frustrations or setbacks build up over the course of the day? Was there a situation where your child felt unheard or unable to communicate their needs? Is there a certain time of day or activity that is routinely problematic?

Once you better understand your child’s triggers, you and your child are then able to work together to manage triggers when they arise.

Ways to help manage and support ADHD meltdowns as a parent

It’s easy to offer the obvious advice to remain calm and to be patient with your child when a meltdown occurs, but much harder to actually do when you are tired, frustrated, embarrassed, or unable to enjoy or accomplish activities or tasks. We know this is hard and that is okay. Try to keep the following in mind when dealing with a meltdown. Try a few things and see what works best for you and your child.

Try to find time to engage in self-care – It’s completely normal to feel anger when your day is disrupted by a meltdown. These times can be very difficult and can push you to your limit as a parent. Some parents find it helpful to take a few minutes to themselves to destress so that when situations like meltdowns occur, they have more patience and bandwidth to support their child. Some people find exercise, a phone call with a friend, or a shower just enough to give them the time and space they need to recharge. Don’t feel bad for feeling angry or upset, you are only human.

Communicate with your child clearly – Meltdowns can occur because your child doesn’t think they are being heard or understood. First, tell them what you are observing. This can help them understand how their behavior looks to others. This may be statements like, “You are yelling” or “You seem really mad right now.” Next, show your child empathy by communicating what seems to be their concern or trigger back to them: “I know it’s disappointing that we have to leave and I understand that you were having fun. On the way home, let’s make plans about other fun things we can do soon.” If your child shares that this is not why they are upset, listen and ask questions.

Once you’re both removed from the situation and your child has calmed down, try to have a conversation about what happened. Saying things like, “I know it made you angry when we had to leave today, but it was time to go. Do you have any suggestions for how we could make leaving easier? Do you think it would be helpful if I gave you more warnings about when we would have to leave or if we set an alarm?” to help your child think through potential ways to make the next situation feel a bit better. This will help your child to build confidence and self-esteem.

Engage in forms of self-regulation – When a meltdown occurs, children often do not know or cannot access tools to help manage the big emotions. One way to help your child use these skills in the moment to work on appropriate ways to manage difficult emotions when your child isn’t dysregulated. Practice taking deep breaths, counting to ten before talking, squeezing a stress ball or playing with a fidget cube, or stomping their feet or jumping up and down five times throughout the day to help these skills feel more accessible when they get into a situation when they need them the most.

Understanding your child’s needs, recognizing and avoiding triggers, and helping them learn to express their emotions appropriately can improve your day-to-day life and will have a significant impact on your child’s future.

Learn more about how biofeedback video games help kids with ADHD build emotional regulation skills.

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