Meltdowns & Anger

Helping Your Little Tyrant Avoid Outbursts

Does your child with ADHD react violently or loudly when he doesn’t get what he wants? Here are some ideas for inspiring better behavior all the time.

A little boy screams at the airport. He may need anger management for kids.
A little boy screams at the airport. He may need anger management for kids.

Sometimes it seems as if children who have ADHD can’t get enough out of life – no matter how much they’re given. This is especially true for youngsters with the hyperactive form of ADHD, which can trigger violent reactions even to minor letdowns.

One child I worked with blew up at the teacher when a little rain delayed school recess. Another wept inconsolably after being told he wouldn’t be able to stop for ice cream after a fun-filled day.

When a child with ADHD overreacts to disappointment, parents must avoid overreacting themselves. In time, even the most volatile children can learn to rein in the anger and frustration their disappointment triggers. In the meantime, here are eight things parents and caregivers can do to help a child cope with disappointment.

1. Discuss potential letdowns in advance

If your child realizes that disappointment may lie in store, she’ll be able to plan how to react. For example, as you drive to the mall, you might say, “Last time we tried to find that game you wanted, the store was all out. I remember how disappointed you were and how upset you got. What will we do if you are disappointed today?”

2. Give others a heads-up

If you’re concerned that your child’s overreaction to disappointment might spoil a school outing, play date, birthday party, sporting event, or another group activity, consider giving the teacher or other adult in control a heads-up. You might say, “Sometimes my child becomes extremely upset when things don’t go his way. When that happens, a few kind words can usually calm him down. If this happens a lot, please let me know, so that I can talk to him at home.”

If the problem persists, a parent-teacher meeting may be needed to review more effective solutions.

3. Acknowledge your child’s disappointment

Let him know that you can see he is disappointed, and that you understand why he feels that way. This shows him that you understand him and that you are there to help him through the problem.

4. Ask your child how upset he feels

By having him reflect on the intensity of his disappointment, you’re helping him learn to understand his emotions and control his behavior. And knowing how upset your child feels helps you determine whether it’s necessary to intervene in order to keep the situation from spiraling out of control.

Imagine that nine-year-old Jim is attending a football game with his father. During the first quarter, Jim asks for a team jersey and is disappointed when his dad says he’ll buy one only after the game. If Jim feels only a little upset, a few soothing words from his father should be enough to prevent a meltdown. But if Jim feels so upset that he wouldn’t be able to enjoy the game, buying the jersey right away might be the better choice.

If your child has trouble putting his feelings into words, a “feeling thermometer” can help. This is simply a drawing of a thermometer marked with levels of distress. The child can keep the thermometer in his pocket to refer to – and to show you how upset he feels. If he’s older, he can simply refer to the names of the various levels to describe how upset he feels.

5. Encourage your child to pursue “Plan B”

Help her realize that, even if she doesn’t get her first choice, she may be satisfied with a second or even a third choice. Before taking your little soccer enthusiast to the playground, for instance, you might ask her: “What if no one wants to play soccer today?” Encourage her to come up with a satisfying alternative. For instance, she might say to her playmates: “If I play your game today, can we play soccer tomorrow?”

6. Use a carrot-and-stick approach to discourage outbursts

In the playground scenario described above, the carrot might be that your daughter gets to rent a video if she copes well with the disappointment of not getting to play soccer. The stick might be that she has to go home immediately if she overreacts to the situation.

7. Help your child with “damage control”

A friend or classmate who witnesses an outburst by your child may be reluctant to interact with him in the future. In such cases, a word or two of explanation from you can help repair the damaged relationship and make way for future playdates. Also, try planning a structured activity, such as a movie, for the two children.

8. Show your child how you deal with disappointment

Let him know that life is not always fair and that everyone experiences letdowns – but that you try to remain optimistic. You might say, “I waited all week to borrow a book at the library, and it still hasn’t come in. I’m so disappointed. I guess I’ll read something else.”

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