How to Handle Tantrums in a Child with ADHD

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If your child lives with ADHD and frequently experiences tantrums, you may feel fatigued or at a loss as to how to curb these outbursts. What’s the connection between tantrums and ADHD?

More importantly, what can you do to address tantrums in a child with ADHD and prevent future occurrences? Use the information in this article to create a plan for your family - and never hesitate to reach out for help if you need it. 

Can Tantrums Be a Sign of ADHD?

Tantrums aren’t a direct or diagnostic symptom of ADHD. However, the symptoms, challenges, and emotions a child with ADHD may face can lead kids with ADHD to experience more tantrums in some cases, and it is known among medical and mental healthcare providers that atypical tantrums can be a sign of some diagnoses.

Understanding why tantrums may occur in children who live with ADHD, and the ways that these may differ from tantrums experienced by other children may be helpful. There are also specific methods that can help parents understand how to handle tantrums in a child with ADHD. 

Why Tantrums Happen

Why do tantrums happen in kids with ADHD? Here are some contributing factors that may apply:

  • Direct ADHD symptoms. ADHD can cause a child to become frustrated more easily, which can lead to tantrums. People with ADHD often feel a sense of urgency or may act out of impulse. Kids with ADHD may find it tough to wait for their turn. ADHD symptoms, including those inattentive in nature, can lead kids to feel frustrated more easily, resulting in more frequent tantrums.
  • Emotional dysregulation. Emotional dysregulation is not a disorder. Instead, it’s a term that refers to difficulty controlling or self-regulating emotional responses, therefore leading to “overblown” or extreme reactions. Due to executive dysfunction and other challenges faced by those with ADHD, emotional dysregulation is common. Kids may need additional support in learning how to identify and calmly express feelings, and it may be a process that takes time and comes with ups and downs.
  • The presence of other disorders or concerns. It is common for kids and adults with ADHD to live with another co-occurring mental or behavioral health condition or concern. In fact, 64% do. For example, we see at least one irritability symptom in 91% of children with ADHD and Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder in 31% of children with ADHD. Oppositional Defiant Disorder, anxiety disorders, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and depressive disorders are also common, potentially leading to more tantrums

Typical vs. ADHD-Related Tantrums

How do typical tantrums vary from those you might see in kids with ADHD? Simply put, when you have a condition like ADHD, it informs many of your life experiences, including how you process and respond to things. ADHD affects your internal and external world.

Kids who live with ADHD may express things more intensely or aggressively. This may be due in part to hyperactivity symptoms, a sense of urgency, impulsivity, and increased emotional sensitivity. Similarly, symptoms like trouble following through with instructions and interrupting other people may look like poor behavior, when in reality, it’s a sign of ADHD and is not intentional.

How to Handle Tantrums

First, what can you do during an active tantrum? Here are some tips for how to handle tantrums that you can keep in mind: 

Use positive discipline. 

Positive discipline can include a number of practices such as modeling, acknowledging positive behaviors,  and rewarding what you do want to see rather than focusing solely on what you don’t. Using these positive discipline techniques are particularly important for kids with ADHD.

Speak to them calmly. 

When you speak to your child, do your best to keep your voice calm and neutral. This is a way to lead by example, and raising your voice often escalates tantrums. If you do slip up and raise your voice, apologize. It’s important to show children humility and the value of admitting mistakes. 

Acknowledge feelings. 

Validate your child’s feelings not just during the tantrum, but any time they share how they feel. Ask questions and reflect on what they’re saying (you might reply with, “that does sound frustrating,” etc.) No one wants to feel invalidated, including children, nor does invalidation help.

Develop a plan. 

Develop a plan for addressing a current tantrum and preventing future tantrums. Behavior and/or reward charts can help as well as giving your child expectations around certain situations that often lead to tantrums. Give your child replacement behaviors and modes of expression to use instead of tantrums. 

The goal is to prevent a child’s inner dialogue from becoming, “I’m bad, everyone’s mean, no one understands,” or to move away from this thought process, which is what children may hear, even if it’s deeply unintentional on your end, when it comes to outdated, traditional forms of discipline. Instead, make the shift toward processes that promote the thoughts: “I am capable, I have tools, I can express myself in other ways, and I can be understood.”

Preventing Tantrums 

What can you do to prevent tantrums in kids with ADHD? Here are some tips:

Adjust your parenting style. 

Make a shift in your parenting style to one that is more suited to kids with ADHD, or that encourages healthy emotional expression. Using rewards or reward systems, leading by example (apologizing when you misspeak to your child, etc.), becoming more emotionally in tune and teaching kids about emotions, and improving communication/listening skills are all examples of changes you might implement. 

Maintain a routine. 

Consistent daily routines can be helpful for any child, and it can be particularly crucial for kids with ADHD and other similar disorders. Daily routine and/or reward charts, again, can be advantageous in helping families solidify and maintain routines.

Actively listen. 

Active listening is a skill that can help us in all areas of life. It refers to a conscious effort to engage in the listening process, working to fully hear, understand, and retain what the other person is saying, as well as responding appropriately.

What that would look like, in action, is listening when your child speaks, showing that you’re listening when they speak (through nodding, etc), waiting until they’re finished talking before you speak, and responding in a way that shows you are listening and want to understand. You might ask clarifying questions or repeat/refer to parts of what they said, such as “How did you feel when the teacher did that?”

Openly communicate. 

Create an environment where open communication is standard. Teach kids how to talk about feelings, and make sure to communicate with them openly throughout the day about routines, expectations, and so on. For example, you might say “we’re going to the store today” in the morning and “we will go to the store in one hour/30 minutes/5 minutes,” as you approach the event.

Don’t surprise kids with variations in routine - give them a head’s up. Similarly, if they have chores, behaviors (IE, using an indoor voice), or activities they’re expected to engage in, communicate those expectations directly.

Ask questions about their needs. 

Often, a tantrum indicates a need of some kind. This could be an emotional need (such as the need to feel understood) or another type of need. For example, a child might feel overstimulated, which could contribute to a tantrum. Asking questions and listening actively shows that you care and are here to hear your child out. 

Recognize triggers. 

Look for any potential patterns that relate to why and when your child experiences tantrums. If there are commonalities, these can be identified as triggers for outbursts or tantrums, and you can identify ways to prepare for challenging situations

Seek help. 

Seeking therapy and treatment for your child can be helpful. It may also be helpful for parents to seek therapy and other forms of support for themselves as they move through the process of helping their child, such as support groups for those who have children living with ADHD. 

Keep in mind that it will take time for you and your child both to make these changes, adjust, and benefit from them. Once these things are consistent for your child and you’re past the stage where you initially make a shift, you may start to see differences, potentially including an increased ability to identify and express emotions calmly and the prevention of tantrums.

It isn’t a quick fix; it’s something to stick to that’ll come with ups and downs, and just as behavior change takes time, it takes time to modify the way you parent your children.

Therapies and Treatment

Many of the same therapies and treatments that can help with ADHD symptoms can also be valuable for addressing tantrums. Many children benefit from the added support of a therapist, and this could be particularly crucial if at-home changes don’t work, if you feel that your child could benefit from added emotional support, or if they could benefit from seeing a professional who can help them identify and talk about feelings calmly.

The truth is that anyone can benefit from therapy. Child therapists cater therapy to a child’s age group - for example, a child might attend play therapy vs. the modalities that would generally be used for adults - and personal needs.

Medications and other forms of treatment can decrease irritability and aid general symptom management in kids who have ADHD, which may lead to improved behavior, especially alongside other forms of support and changes at home.

A professional can help you and your child find what works with their unique needs in mind. No matter what routes you take, know that change is possible, and take pride in yourself for caring for the needs of your child as a unique individual.