Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) tend to have a more difficult time paying attention, sitting still, and focusing. They may also be hyperactive and display impulsive behaviors.
In addition to these symptoms of ADHD, children with the disorder may act aggressively by hitting or kicking and be angry and defiant in certain situations. In this article, I’ll walk through the connection between ADHD and aggressive behavior. I’ll also discuss actionable steps in how to handle aggressive behavior.
Lastly, I’ll provide tips on avoiding aggressive behavior.
ADHD and Aggressive Behavior
Children with ADHD tend to act during the moment.
When displaying physical aggression, disruptive behaviors, and reacting to things that make them sad or angry, they do not consider the consequences of their actions. This goes hand in hand with the symptom of impulsivity and uncontrollable emotional reactions in a child with ADHD.
Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
About 40 percent of children with ADHD also have Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) or another disruptive behavior disorder. ODD is a behavioral disorder that can cause children to be uncooperative, defiant, and hostile toward the people around them.
Children with ADHD usually find mundane tasks, such as chores, getting ready for bed, homework, getting dressed, etc, very boring and they associate them with taking a lot of effort. To avoid doing these tasks, they might throw tantrums and display aggressive behaviors.
In addition to these factors, people with ADHD feel emotions strongly, making it harder to manage them when they arise. This is due to a lack of self-regulation in people with ADHD.
How to Handle Aggressive Behavior
When handling aggressive behavior with a child with ADHD, it’s important to:
Assess the danger
When a child is displaying violent behavior, analyze the danger of the situation. If your child is looking to throw things, try to keep dangerous things out of reach to keep the space safe. While it can be normal developmentally for children to display some aggression, it is always important to assess for your family’s safety.
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you and others safe right now?
- Is the child capable of hurting me or others right now?
- Is the person damaging property?
- Has the child already physically hurt me or someone else?
If you feel unsafe, it’s important to call 911 and seek help.
While it can be difficult to stay calm while your child is displaying violent behavior, it’s highly important.
When you’re able to speak calmly and display self-control, you’re leading by example for the child. Yelling and screaming can also heighten the emotions that your child is feeling, and increase their aggression.
Suggest you both take time to cool off
Before talking about the behaviors, suggest taking time to cool down from the heightened emotions you both are feeling.
This might include sitting in different rooms and taking deep breaths. When children are in highly emotional statements, such as when they are aggressive, it can be much more difficult for them to engage in any conversations. Try taking some time off prior to talking through emotions.
Try talking through the emotions
When your child is displaying aggressive behaviors, it’s likely because they’re unable to express themselves any other way. Try talking to your child in a calm voice, and help them to understand what they are feeling.
You can start by validating how they feel:
“I see that are/ were feeling very angry that I told you to stop playing your video game.”
And continue by following up with a question about how they feel:
“I’d like to help you feel better. Can you tell me calmly what made you angry?”
Finish by asking them about how to prevent the situation from escalating in the future:
“How can we change the way we reacted in the future so everyone feels safe and heard?”
Be understanding, but don't excuse the behavior
When your child with ADHD displays aggressive behavior, they most likely did not intend to show such extreme behaviors. However, they must know that it was not acceptable to act that way.
Try saying something like:
“I know you felt angry. And while you didn’t mean to, it hurt me - this is not ok. Let’s talk about other ways to communicate that you are angry.”
Document the behaviors
Documenting behaviors (before and after aggressive behaviors) can be a good tool to analyze any patterns. You might be able to find what triggers your child’s aggression and talk about it with your child’s healthcare provider.
To diagnose ODD, a healthcare professional will assess your child’s:
- Overall health
- Frequency and intensity of behaviors
- Emotions and behavior across multiple settings and relationships
- Presence of other mental health, learning, or communication disorders
- Family situations and interactions
- Strategies that have been helpful — or not helpful — in managing problem behaviors
Treatment for ADHD and ODD can be approached in different ways.
Treatment for ODD may include:
Parent training involves a mental health professional providing parenting skills that are consistent and positive and helps to lessen frustration. Your child may attend the training with you so they understand the goals and problem-solving.
Individual and family therapy
Individual therapy can help children manage their anger and express it in healthier ways. Family therapy works to improve communication and relationships by working together.
Problem-Solving Skills Training
This therapy helps your child and family to identify and understand the patterns that lead to behavior problems. From there, parents can work with the child to find solutions that work for the whole family.
Preventing Aggressive Behavior
There’s not a one size fits all solution when it comes to aggressive behavior. Each child is unique and has their own challenges.
However, consider these tips on preventing aggressive behavior:
Early intervention and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Oftentimes, children will outgrow defiant and aggressive behavior.
One of the best ways to avoid aggressive behaviors is to teach the child while they’re young, about processing their feelings in an appropriate and respectful way and identifying parenting strategies that work well for you. This can be done through a combination of cognitive-behavioral therapy and parent training.
As they grow older, it can be more difficult for the child to grow out of these patterns of aggressiveness. Try to catch the behaviors and involve them in early intervention and/or cognitive behavioral therapy as soon as possible.
Have them get enough exercise
One study was conducted where children with ADHD participated in an 8-week sports games training protocol five times a week. The results found that children had greater inhibition and control performance on tasks, as well as fewer impulsive and aggressive behaviors.
It’s believed that regular physical exercise can help children with ADHD form a directional action pattern, standardize their behavior, and become less impulsive and aggressive.
If your child is showing consistent aggression, you might want to ask your healthcare provider about medication.
Seeking Professional Help
Emotional outbursts and aggressive or defiant behavior can be difficult to control. It’s important to seek professional help when necessary. Talk to your child’s healthcare provider to understand your options and find the best fit for your child.
Children with ADHD are more prone to ODD and aggressive behaviors. There are ways to handle aggressive behaviors, such as assessing the danger, staying calm, talking through the emotions, being understanding while not excusing the behavior, and documenting what occurred.
Preventing aggressive behaviors can include early intervention, exercise, and medication. Most importantly, seek professional help if you are overwhelmed or feel out of control.