It can be painful and troubling to watch your child with ADHD have a meltdown. Meltdowns in kids with ADHD are common and can be about anything from having to do homework to simply being bored.
So what can you do, as a parent, to calm your child with ADHD? We’ll go over the reasons behind why kids with ADHD have meltdowns and break down 5 effective strategies you can use to calm your child with ADHD.
Why do kids with ADHD have meltdowns?
If your child has ADHD, you probably know better than anyone else that ADHD can sometimes cause meltdowns. Every child throws tantrums from time to time, but these emotional outbursts are more common and intense in kids with ADHD.
It isn’t your child’s fault. Experts say that people with ADHD, adults and children alike, have trouble with emotional dysregulation.
This is a psychological term that describes when someone has a hard time controlling strong feelings or soothing themselves when they feel upset. This emotional dysregulation shows up in the form of irritability — what you, as a parent, have probably observed as a temper tantrum.
One report found that up to 50% of youth with ADHD may also have problems with emotional dysregulation.
There are lots of different theories that explain why kids with ADHD have more meltdowns than kids without it. It’s possible that the symptoms of ADHD, like impulsivity and intolerance for boredom, make children feel overwhelmed and irritable. They might also feel frustrated when they’re not able to perform like they want to at school, which could lead to a meltdown.
5 ways to calm a child with ADHD
Luckily, there are things that you, as a parent, can do to calm your child down when they’re having a meltdown. You’ll notice that these strategies aren’t about disciplining your child; instead, they’re more focused on how to soothe your child during these difficult moments.
Keep in mind that these strategies are most effective when you use them to prevent a meltdown from happening in the first place, rather than in the heat of a meltdown. Try to pay attention when your child tends to have a hard time. Is it toward the end of the day? Is it during transitions? You can also notice the signs that your child is becoming more and more upset.
Prepare for these moments, and when it’s possible, try to use these 5 strategies to calm your child down before a full-blown meltdown occurs.
Redirect excess energy
One reason that kids with ADHD have meltdowns is because of hyperactivity. Hyperactivity is a common symptom of ADHD, especially for kids. It makes them feel like they’re running on a motor, and it can be incredibly frustrating for them to be asked to sit still. When all that hyperactive energy has nowhere to go, it sometimes results in a tantrum.
If your child has a lot of energy, then it needs to get out in some form or another. When you see signs of an impending meltdown, try redirecting the energy to a more productive or healthy activity.
Examples of activities you can do with your child include:
- Dance together
- Play sports
- Give them a physical “challenge,” like running around the yard 3 times
- Inviting them to help you with specific tasks around the house
- Play a fun game
It’s easy to get wrapped up in your own frustration when your child is having a meltdown. While this is completely understandable — it’s hard work being a parent! — try to have empathy for what your child is experiencing, as well.
When children with ADHD have meltdowns, it’s usually a sign that their brains are flooded with so many different sensations and emotions that they don’t know how to make sense of it all. They probably feel completely overwhelmed and are expressing themselves in the only way they know how to.
Although it’s hard in the heat of the moment, try to keep the perspective that your child isn’t behaving this way to purposely upset you. Once you’ve established that, communicate that empathy to your child.
One way to do this is through reflective listening. For example, you might say something like, “I see you crying and hitting things — you must be feeling pretty angry and upset. Is that right?”
Allow the child to take breaks
It’s perfectly okay, and even recommended, to give your child breaks when they’re completing a task. For example, let’s say that your child has a homework assignment to do. They start working on it, but you soon see some signs of an impending meltdown.
Instead of forcing them to “work through it,” give them a break. Some experts say that a short break every 10 or 20 minutes might be necessary for some kids with ADHD.
It’s important to use the break time intentionally. For example, an hour-long break to watch TV probably won’t help your child get back to focusing. “Brain breaks” are quick, energizing activities that can help your child release some of the frustration they’re feeling. Some ideas for brain breaks include:
- Sensory activities
- Mindfulness activities
- Movement, like “getting the wiggles out”
Routines are very important for kids with ADHD. ADHD causes people to have a hard time with self-control. That means that it might be hard for your child to motivate themselves to do what needs to be done instead of whatever they feel like doing at the moment.
When there’s a routine already in place, it can act as an external control to help guide your child’s behaviors. A routine provides structure and predictability — which helps kids, with and without ADHD, feel safe. Visual reminders of an existing routine are especially helpful for kids with ADHD.
When your child already knows what to expect, they may be less likely to have a tantrum when they are required to do something they don’t want to do (like chores or homework).
Lastly, remember that relaxation is a skill that needs to be learned. Just because your child has ADHD doesn’t mean that they are incapable of learning it.
Relaxation skills, like certain breathing techniques, have been found to physically calm the nervous system. This is a very useful tool for kids with ADHD to be equipped with.
Relaxation skills are most effective when you teach and practice them long before the meltdown happens. For example, you might guide your child through a body scan exercise every night before bed. You could practice deep breathing with them before they go to school.
When your child is already familiar with these exercises, they’ll be more likely to be able to use them during rough moments. Even more importantly, they’ll be equipped with these skills for the rest of their life, making it less likely that emotional dysregulation will cause problems for them in the future.
Kids with ADHD have a hard time regulating their emotions. They get frustrated easily, and impulsivity might cause them to throw a tantrum to avoid tasks that are repetitive or boring.
This isn’t their fault; it’s a result of their ADHD. Try using these strategies to calm your child with ADHD when they’re having a meltdown. Remember, the earlier you use these strategies, the better — it’s easier to prevent a meltdown than to change its course once it’s already happening.