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What To Do If Your ADHD Child Destroys Things

January 6, 2023
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    Most children act out or challenge parents from time to time, but what if your child engages in destructive behavior? Children who engage in destructive behavior may break things, throw temper tantrums, get violent toward adults or other children, or act out in another capacity.

    It's not easy to watch your child destroy things, especially if it's all the time. Many parents feel helpless when they see this behavior in their child. What can you do? In this article, we'll talk about common reasons kids resort to destructive behaviors and how to manage destructive behavior in kids. Then, we'll discuss when and how to seek help for your child's behavior.

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    Why Does My Child Resort to Destructive Behaviors?

    If a child doesn't have coping skills that work, they will express feelings or cope with emotions in their own way. Most kids who resort to destructive behavior do it because it's a way to cope. It seems purposeful, but for the majority of children, it's about the way their brain works and the skills that a child has (or doesn't have). A child may break things, start punching holes in the wall, or throw temper tantrums when they don't know how to manage intense emotions such as anger, sadness, or frustration. Kids may feel like they have little control in their daily lives, which might make them feel powerless or otherwise upset.

    Emotional dysregulation is a common battle for kids with ADHD. Just like many children have a higher sensitivity to rejection, they might experience feelings more intensely. Big emotions can be a positive thing; it's when a child doesn't know how to cope that it becomes problematic, whether they gear harmful behavior toward themselves (e.g., through self-harm) or externally by throwing things, destroying property, and so on.

    Impulsivity can also play a role. If children have lower impulse control, they might not be able to self-manage and may destroy things before they have time to think, "what can I do instead?" However, kids can be taught to control impulses more effectively.

    If a child's having a particularly hard time at school, with changes in the home or another part of life, you may notice an uptick in negative behavior. This is something for a parent to be mindful of.

    It's worthwhile to note that many kids with ADHD have a co-occurring disorder of some kind. For example, a mood disorder like depression or a disruptive behavior disorder like oppositional defiant disorder, which can affect a child's behavior.

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    Is it oppositional defiant disorder?

    Disruptive behavior disorders and ADHD aren't the same thing, but they can go together. According to the CDC, 52% of kids with ADHD have a behavior or conduct problem.

    Oppositional defiant disorder is one example. When compared to the general population, kids with ADHD are more likely to have oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). Oppositional defiant disorder is marked by patterns of angry or irritable mood, vindictiveness, and argumentative or defiant behavior. Often, the behavior is geared toward parents and other authority figures.

    Conduct disorder is another possibility. Conduct disorder is characterized by continuous patterns of aggression toward other people and serious violations of rules and social norms at school, the home, and with other children.

    Discovering why your child destroys things can give you insight into your child's point of view and help you find solutions. Regardless of the cause, there are ways to help.

    How to Manage A Child's Destructive Behavior

    When you realize that your child's behavior is a problem, what can you do? There are ways to promote good behavior in kids and improve your parent-child relationship. Here are some tips parents can use to help their children overcome destructive behavior.

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    Set rules and boundaries

    Kids need clear rules and boundaries. Be direct with your child and tell them the specific behavior you will not tolerate. Tell your child the consequences that will come with that behavior, and follow through. 

    In the case that control is a factor, when you talk to your child, tell them that there are some parts of their life they can control. They should have some autonomy in areas like hobbies, clothing choices, or something else you can extend.

    Let children know that their feelings matter, and that you are there to listen when they're upset. Tell them that the boundaries you have are non-negotiable and that you will work together to help them change their behavior. 

    Suggest other ways to show emotions

    As discussed, destroying property and other destructive behaviors tend to be a way to cope with their feelings. Accordingly, one of the key components of helping a child discontinue destructive behavior is to find other coping skills that work.

    Teach children to show emotions by communicating, and give positive reinforcement when they communicate. Some children don't know how to identify emotions. In that case, it's beneficial to teach kids how to identify that they are angry, frustrated, sad, and so on. Start a discussion about how to identify big feelings when they first begin - what are the first signs that they're about to get angry or overwhelmed?

    As far as coping skills go, parents and kids have choices. Showing a child how to excuse themselves when they feel angry so they have time to cool down, using physical activity or intense movement (jumping, running, shaking arms by their side away from other people), or screaming into or punching a pillow, are all examples.

    Hold them accountable

    Consistent consequences are essential. Especially with ADHD, children benefit most from immediate consequences. Examples of immediate consequences for kids include but aren't limited to time outs, consequences that relate directly to the behavior (if they break things - like a video game controller - they can't play), and other consequences that are unique to your child.

    When you establish consequences, make sure your child won't be indifferent to them. Ensure that consequences are applicable. For example, "no screen time today" is a consequence that'll matter to a child who enjoys screen time, but if they're indifferent to screen time, it'll be less effective.

    Give positive reinforcement

    Consequences for harmful behavior matter. Rewarding good behavior is equally as necessary- if not more so - for most kids. Similar to consequences, especially with ADHD, children benefit most from immediate rewards. Also like with consequences, rewards must appeal to the unique child. Examples of positive reinforcement include but aren't limited to verbal praise, token systems, or experiences like playing games, going outside, or watching TV.

    Provide attention outside of outbursts

    Some kids are drawn to the attention they get when acting out at school, home, or in other spaces. It is important that kids get your undivided attention outside of outbursts. This matters for all kids but can be particularly relevant for parents of multiple children, older children with younger siblings, or for kids who recently moved or experienced another change.

    If you have multiple children, set aside a short period of one-on-one time for each child regularly. Even if that's fifteen minutes to sit and talk alone. Pre-establish the time and make sure it is not after an outburst, as this will act as a reward for unwanted behavior.

    Stay calm

    Model the behavior you want to see in your child. Again, some kids are drawn to the attention they get after an outburst, even if it is negative attention. When you confront kids about their behavior, provide discipline, or discuss consequences, remain calm.

    When to Seek More Help For A Child's Behavior

    If children destroy property, hurt themselves, or hurt someone else, seek help for your child's behavior. Emotional distress that extends beyond what is “normal” or expected alone is a reason to find support for kids. Early intervention can make a huge difference when possible, so when parents notice destructive behaviors in their kids, it isn't too soon to reach out. Make an appointment with a medical provider, such as your child's pediatrician to discuss potential causes, treatment options, and next steps. Next steps could refer to an evaluation, a referral to a therapist for individual therapy or parent training, or something else. Give empathy to your child throughout the process, and remember that kids with any behavioral issues will benefit from your compassion.


    Many children who destroy things do so because they don't know how to handle intense emotions or feel like they don't have control in their life. It is common for children with ADHD to have a dual diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, or another condition. If a child has another disorder, it may impact their behavior. Parenting skills such as teaching kids coping skills, holding kids accountable, and setting firm boundaries can all be valuable. Seeking professional help is crucial for kids who engage in destructive behavior.


    Dr. Brittany Ferri, PhD

    Brittany is a registered and licensed occupational therapist who holds a PhD in Integrative Mental Health. She is the owner of a writing and consulting company called Simplicity of Health. She has direct experience in program development, behavioral health, pediatrics, and telehealth. She has published five books, lectured at 20+ OT/OTA programs, and has been quoted as a health expert by NBC News, WebMD, CNN, and other outlets.


    Dr. Brittany Ferri, PhD

    Brittany is a registered and licensed occupational therapist who holds a PhD in Integrative Mental Health. She is the owner of a writing and consulting company called Simplicity of Health. She has direct experience in program development, behavioral health, pediatrics, and telehealth. She has published five books, lectured at 20+ OT/OTA programs, and has been quoted as a health expert by NBC News, WebMD, CNN, and other outlets.