In kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), impulsivity manifests in many different ways.
“Kids can impulsively run into the street. They can hit another student in line at school. They can climb up on the roof and jump off, hoping to fly like Superman,” said Terry Matlen, ACSW, a psychotherapist and author of Survival Tips for Women with AD/HD.
And they can have tantrums. There are many reasons why kids with ADHD have meltdowns. For instance, “for many children with ADHD there is no internal understanding of ‘later.’ It’s now or now,” Matlen said. They have a hard time putting their wants and needs on hold. Because they’re kids, they’ve also yet to learn how to calm themselves or express their needs and emotions appropriately, she said.
“A little disappointment becomes the end of the world and nothing seems to stop the child from, what looks like, obsessing over their intense needs of that moment.”
They also might feel overwhelmed by external events, such as “too much noise or excitement at a party… Combined, these symptoms make it very hard to stay calm when under stress or when they feel fearful or anxious.”
When your child has a tantrum, especially in public, it can be tough to know how to respond. Some parents vacillate from one extreme to another, from placating their child and giving in to punishing them and getting angry, according to Matlen.
But while it might seem impossible, you can navigate the rocky road of tantrums. Here are expert strategies to prevent tantrums or tame them when they start.
1. Pinpoint the source.
Psychotherapist Stephanie Sarkis, Ph.D, suggested looking “at what might be triggering your child’s behaviors.” When you can find the source of the behavior, she said, you can make strides toward changing it.
Knowing what triggers your child, Matlen said, can help you defuse their tantrum as early as possible. For instance, is your child hungry? Are they sleep-deprived? Are they experiencing strong emotions? Once you pinpoint the underlying problem try to solve it, she said.
This also is a good tool for preventing tantrums. For instance, if your child can’t handle the overstimulating environment of a local fair, just don’t take them, Matlen said.
2. Explain consequences in advance.
Before a tantrum ever starts, Matlen suggested talking to your child about the negative consequences of bad behaviors. She gave this example: “If you scream and cry when I turn off the TV, you won’t be able to watch it later today.”
Matlen took this approach when her daughter was 5 years old. She tended to have tantrums when she didn’t get a new toy at the store. “Before our next outing, I told her that if she had a tantrum, I would simply pick her up and take her home. No toys and no more visits to the store for a very long time.”
Her daughter still had a meltdown. But instead of getting furious or frustrated, Matlen picked up her daughter and took her to the car. She drove home without saying a word. And it never happened again.
“This, of course, may not work for all children, but it’s an example of planning ahead and having an outcome that everyone understands.”
3. Talk to your child, and encourage them to talk back.
Talk calmly and quietly to your child, and acknowledge their feelings, Matlen said. Doing so helps your child feel heard, Sarkis said.
For instance, according to Matlen, you might say, “I know you’re angry that I won’t buy you that toy today. It feels frustrating and it makes you feel like exploding inside, doesn’t it?”
Then, encourage your child to express their emotions, as well: “I’d be awfully upset too if I couldn’t get what I wanted right now — let’s talk about why this is so important to you so you can help me to understand.”
4. Distract your child.
For younger kids, distraction may work, Matlen said. “Talk about something completely different, like how excited you are to watch the TV show you planned, when you all get home.”
5. Give them a time-out.
“Sometimes, nothing seems to work, though, and a child will not stop no matter what you try,” Matlen said. When that happens, calmly explain that they’ll need to go to their room. They can come out after they’ve calmed down. This is a powerful way to learn self-soothing behaviors, she said. Because of that, it’s important to keep objects that promote healthy coping, such as a teddy bear or fidget toys, she added.
6. Ignore the tantrum.
“Sometimes the best reaction to a tantrum is no reaction,” said Sarkis, author of several books on ADHD, including Making the Grade with ADD: A Student’s Guide to Succeeding in College with Attention Deficit Disorder. That’s because “even negative attention is attention, and it gives a ‘payoff’ for the behavior.” So not giving your child an “audience” might help to lessen the length of the tantrum.
If your child has a tantrum in the middle of the store – and it’s not crowded – let them have the tantrum, Sarkis said. “You may get looks from others. It’s OK. Just remember that not paying attention to the behavior helps extinguish it.”
7. Give them reminders.
According to both experts, kids with ADHD have a hard time with transitions. They can have a meltdown when it’s time to leave the playground or stop playing their videogame to have dinner, Matlen said. “Things that are pleasurable are hard to stop, especially when the transition is into an activity they might not enjoy.”
This is when reminders are key. For instance, remind your child at 30, 15, 10 and 5-minute intervals that dinner is ready, Matlen said. Also, establish appropriate consequences if they don’t comply, such as not playing videogames after dinner, or playing them for 15 minutes instead of 30 next time, she said. (Or just ban videogames before dinner altogether, she said.)
Matlen gave this example of what to say to your child: “I know it’s hard for you to stop playing your PlayStation when it’s time for dinner. I will give you reminders so that you can wind down. However, having a tantrum is not acceptable, so if that happens, you will (fill in the blank).”
8. Praise your child when they do show self-control.
“Parents need to catch their kids being good much more than they catch them being ‘bad,’” Sarkis said. “Children with ADHD respond well to positive reinforcement.” Plus, “whatever you focus on grows,” she added.
According to Matlen, instead of saying, “You are such a good boy for not having a meltdown when I said no to ice cream,” a better response would be, “You must have really felt proud of yourself that you didn’t have a tantrum when you saw that we were out of cookies – good job!”
9. Avoid corporal punishment.
“It’s a normal reaction to get angry when a parent sees his or her child flat out on the floor lashing out, kicking and screaming,” Matlen said. You might grab your child or even spank them. But this only fuels the negative situation and everyone’s emotions, she said. “Corporal punishment may defuse the behavior temporarily – though usually, it only escalates the negative behavior – but it also sets the tone that it’s OK to hit people when you’re angry.” Also, a child needs to “get himself in control.”
Dealing with tantrums is difficult. But by planning ahead, staying calm and applying specific strategies, you can defuse them. And if the tantrum doesn’t quiet, try to ride it out.