How to Deal Effectively with Tantrums and Meltdowns in People with ADHD
written by: Genevieve Van Wyden
• edited by: Paul Arnold
• updated: 5/18/2011
After a long day trying to concentrate, losing focus and trying to catch up, the person with ADHD just wants to take care of one task without running into a problem. If the person does have a problem, you could be dealing with someone in the middle of a screaming tantrum. So how do you deal with it?
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Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) affects a person’s ability to concentrate and maintain focus in environments like school and the workplace. This person wakes up in the morning, hoping to keep their attention in place long enough to hear and understand everything that happens during classes or meetings at work.
Inevitably, they get distracted by the leaves blowing outside the window, meaning they miss significant chunks of what’s going on. When the teacher or supervisor asks a question, they begin to yell internally -- “You stupid loser! You drifted again! Look at yourself; you can’t even answer one small question! You’re stupid!”
When they experience enough of these moments and confirm for themselves that they are a “stupid loser,” they’re like a boiling pot of water at the end of the day. If someone adds just the wrong ingredient, they’ll boil over. For example, if they get home and someone tells them to take the trash out or go walk the dog in the wrong tone of voice they seemingly transform from a human into someone you don’t recognize -- their face is contorted with rage. They’re yelling as loudly as they can, firing insults and profanity as they release a day’s worth of frustration and anger. They may throw things at you or across the room.
They can learn how to identify the triggers that cause them to build up anger, and then release all of their frustration; developing coping skills and finding ways to help themselves relax so they don’t melt down. And you can learn how to deal with tantrums and meltdowns in people with ADHD.
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Identify Meltdown Triggers
As someone with ADHD learns what triggers anger and frustration, they can start to develop coping skills and strategies that help defuse the usual temper tantrum and meltdown behaviors. They should start working with a therapist to figure out what makes them angry and what stimuli lead to a blowup.
The person and their therapist should talk about a typical day, discussing everything that happens from the moment they wake up until they turn out the light and go to bed. What is a typical morning like? Do they wake up easily, or do they wake up late? Do they have time for a shower and breakfast before leaving home, or do they have to rush so they’ll get to school or work on time? Are they consistently attentive or do they experience ups and downs in their ability to listen and do the class work? Do they experience success in turning assignments in on time, or do they forget what the homework is and earn poor grades?
If they are in the working environment, are they late to work frequently? Do they forget project deadlines? Do they lose focus during meetings?
Once the person and the therapist have discussed particular triggers, they will learn what effect these triggers have. They will discover that while each event is individual, their effects accumulate, leading to a buildup of anger. The final event -- the “boil over” event could be a seemingly innocent remark from someone or a traffic jam resulting from an accident on the freeway -- the next thing that happens is an unexpected eruption of rage, accusations and profanity.
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The person with ADHD has to learn to adjust expectations of themselves and others in their lives. The person knows they have ADHD and they know how it affects them mentally and emotionally. Therefore, they already know they’re not “perfect,” but they try to set the performance bar as if they are perfect. They set that bar just as high for family and friends. Adjusting expectations works because it takes pressure off the person and others -- they are less likely to become as frustrated because they know they’re going to make mistakes. Learn how to deal effectively with tantrums and meltdowns in people with ADHD -- teach what you learn to that person in your life.
Once they have learned to accept imperfection in themselves and others, they can start to develop different skills to help themselves handle frustrations that normally lead to a meltdown. For instance, if they lose their temper in long lines, they can adjust their schedule to get to the bank, store or gas station early in the day or at non-peak times, helping them to handle their business more quickly and with less frustration. Adjusting their schedule is a behavioral change and they are admitting that long lines add to the possibility of a meltdown. When they are able to avoid a tantrum trigger, they’re able to reduce the likelihood of a meltdown.
If they zone out during classes and meetings, they can find a cue that reminds them to re-focus. This can be a picture of a loved one or an item they want to buy when they have enough money. Simply clipping the photo into a binder provides a visual cue to turn their attention back to the boss or teacher. Visual reminders can help because they are a nonverbal reminder of what is important. The person is more likely to refocus when they see their reminder.
If the person loses patience and blows up at their children for forgetting to complete a chore or homework, especially if one of them also has ADHD, they can create a visual reminder for the children and write down chores or homework on a bulletin board. They have given their children a tool to use, which takes pressure off of them. Again, this is less pressure and so less chance for a meltdown.
It’s important for anyone to take time during the day to unwind, relax and release stress in a healthy way, even more so for someone with ADHD. This strategy (probably more than others) works because relaxation decreases the chance of a meltdown.