My middle-school son is pretty typical. When he’s home, you can find him behind closed doors in his room, on a video screen somewhere in the house, or laughing in the front hall as he wrestles with the dog. He probably gets along with his siblings and parents better than most kids his age.
But he is a young ADHD teen, and drama is his middle name. My son tends to be emotional. He feels things intensely, gets defensive at the drop of a hat, and is eager for freedom and independence from Mom and Dad. Like most middle-school kids with ADHD, he struggles with self-regulation.
Now that his preteen hormones are kicking in, I find that a simple “no” or “not now” elicits a volatile reaction. When you add hormones to an ADHD brain’s impulsivity and emotional intensity, you get kaboom.
I have had a lot of practice calming tantrums. My son is the youngest of three kids with ADHD. So, from raising my son’s older sisters and having professional experience as an ADHD coach, I have a few tricks up my sleeve. Here they are:
1. Expect tantrums. The hormones really do make kids a little crazy. Think menopause, without years of experience learning to bite your tongue when people have made you mad. It’s great to try to avoid the tantrums, but it’s unreasonable to think they won’t happen.
2. Don’t take emotional overreactions personally. Since it’s realistic to expect that your kids are going to lose their cool (you do sometimes, right?), don’t jump to the conclusion that they are being rude or disobedient because they don’t respect you. They feel out of control, and they don’t understand why.
3. “Normalize” their experience. Don’t feed into your child’s worst fear, that he won’t be able to control his behavior. Instead, help your preteen see that this is a normal (albeit completely annoying) part of growing up. Special note: Don’t raise this issue while your child is in a meltdown.
4. Focus on management and recovery. Rather than getting mad at your child for losing control, focus on helping her learn how to manage her emotional intensity safely and respectfully, and to recover as quickly as possible. Again, this is not a conversation to have in the heat of the moment. Wait until nothing special is going on. Keep it matter-of-fact. This conversation continues over time.
5. Show compassion. When you are ready to have a conversation, start with acknowledgment. Focus first on your child’s experience. For example, “I can see how it was really hard for you when I said you couldn’t go to your friend’s house.” Or “I remember when my little brother used to annoy me. It can be really hard to handle sometimes!” Your child could use your acknowledgment of the fact that sometimes life can just make you mad.
6. Avoid triggering defensiveness. Your child is likely to get a little reactive at first, even if you start with compassion. This may sound funny, but avoid using the word “you.” Use “I language” when possible, “I can see how it was hard not to get mad,” rather than, “When you got mad, then…”
7. Don’t engage your child when either of you is “triggered.” Agree to give each other space to calm down before continuing conversations when either you or your child is triggered. Identify and use strategies for recovery, like taking five deep breaths, doing some push-ups, taking a shower — whatever works for you.
Remember that when your child is in the middle of a dramatic outburst, it is more difficult — and more important — to stay calm. When you model good self-management, your child will learn to do it, eventually.