Off the Charts
While most parents have dealt with occasional temper tantrums, parents of children with ADHD frequently experience the over-the-top, out-of-control temper tantrums that children with ADHD are capable of. These tantrums often include verbal onslaughts of hostility directed toward parents as well as screeching, screaming, and uncontrollable sobbing. Violent thrashing of arms and legs, punching, kicking, and profuse swearing are also common to ADHD temper tantrums. Children may fight so violently during a tantrum that they complain of a headache and exhaustion when they are finally calm. Some tantrums actually end with the child falling asleep from the exhaustion.
These experiences can be similarly exhausting for parents. They often find themselves trying to protect their children from hurting themselves or others during their tantrums, while simultaneously navigating the emotional pain being inflicted by the child through their words and actions.
The relationship between ADHD and temper tantrums is difficult because the tantrums are often present before the ADHD has been diagnosed, especially in children under the age of five. In these situations, parents have not yet developed an understanding of their child’s condition and therefore experience confusion and frustration over the issue of why their child seems to be so out of control compared to other children they may know. In families where the ADHD has been diagnosed, parents may still feel frustrated and overwhelmed by the responsibility of managing these explosive situations.
Restraint - For You and For Them
The most important thing to do in handling a child’s temper tantrum is to remain calm. Fighting back will only cause the situation to escalate. Children who are struggling with ADHD are experiencing an influx of emotions, often negative, and their ability to control their surroundings is generally compromised, even without the factor that had sparked the tantrum. Bearing in mind that children with ADHD live every day in a world where it is difficult for them to sort through the stimuli around them and times of irritability make that processing skill even more difficult. In short, their world becomes loud, unfocused, frustrating, bright and complex when they are internally reacting to a difficult situation or response. A propensity toward irritability makes the situation even more volatile. When all of these internal factors combine and the temper tantrum begins, parents must remain calm, despite the instinct to respond with more anger.
Children with ADHD who are in the throes of a temper tantrum, may need to be physically restrained. For small children, it is best to develop a simple hold that will prevent them from hurting themselves or others. A firm, but gentle, restraining hug with their back against your chest and their arms crossed in front of their chest is a safe position. This is best done in a sitting position so that the child’s feet are on the floor. Another option is to hold them sideways across your chest with one arm under their head and the other between their legs with your hands interlocked in front of you. This position is good for restraining children who are flailing and striking, but is best done by someone tall and strong. Unfortunately, it does not prevent them from biting the arm under their head.
While restraining a child it may also be helpful to speak soothing words to help the child calm themselves down. In some cases asking the child questions about why they are upset can help them regain control of their body, and to calm down and speak clearly.
While navigating the rough waters of ADHD and temper tantrums, it is good to consider what is going on inside your child at the time of the tantrum. As they are overwhelmed by feelings and emotions, children with ADHD often spew negative statements of hatred and anger toward their parents. Imagining a dialogue of what your child might really want to say may be helpful. Perhaps remembering that underneath it all, they are already sorry for how they are acting, they want you to love them, they want you to always know they love you, and they don’t really understand why they are acting the way they are will help the tantrum end sooner rather than later.
Physically speaking, taking a child who is throwing a tantrum into their bedroom and quietly reminding them that this behavior is unacceptable will help them begin to see the tantrum from your perspective.
Families who are managing children with ADHD and temper tantrums quite literally have their hands full. The best solution is to find a way to avoid the tantrums altogether. Here are a few suggestions that might help stop things before they start.
1. If you know of specific triggers that cause your child’s tantrums, consider other options. For example, if going to a particular store always becomes a problem, perhaps finding an alternative time to shop when a babysitter or other parent is available to watch the child would avoid this conflict. Similarly, if asking a certain type of question, such as a yes/no question, always frustrates your child, you might consider re-wording your requests as multiple choice questions thereby providing them with options and avoiding the cause of their frustration.
2. Talk about tantrums gently and calmly, when they are not an issue, and lay out some rules and consequences for when it happens again. Help your child to understand that everyone gets upset sometimes and that there are appropriate and inappropriate ways of handling anger. Describe what you expect from your child, for example, “The new rule in our house is that crying should only happen on your bed and if you throw a fit you will lose (insert a specific privilege).” If this causes a tantrum, remain calm.
3. Praise. Praise. Praise. Every time your child does not throw a tantrum and responds in the way you wish, provide praise. Look for every opportunity to be proud of your child and express your love and praise.
It is common for children with ADHD to eventually develop better skills for handling their irritability, but that is a process, and part of the learning curve is directly related to how parents respond when tantrums arise. To arrive at a more peaceful point, these tips and ideas should help parents manage the challenges of ADHD and temper tantrums.