Meltdowns & Anger

Help! My Kid’s Having an ADHD Meltdown in Target

“You’re doing a great job. It doesn’t feel like it when your kid is shrieking, and people are staring and judging and muttering. Here’s a great secret, though: They can only make your life harder if you let them.”

Angry little kid screaming and throwing a tantrum while grocery shopping with her mom at the supermarket because she won't buy her candy

You’re at Target. You’re at Little League. You’re at a freaking grocery store, and he does it again: Your 9-year-old throws an epic ADHD meltdown. His face reddens. He stomps. He screams, sometimes incoherently, sometimes coherently in very loud monosyllables: I hate you! I want that! 

You’ve seen this before.

You know that this could have been avoided. He needs food. He needs a drink. He needs rest. He needs a simple brain break. But you misread him or tried to get it all done, and now you’re stuck with a screaming kid somewhere in an unforgiving public where screaming kids mean bad parenting.

You feel the shade being thrown in your direction. Moms cut their eyes at you. Other kids cut their eyes at you. And they murmur words meant for you to overhear. God, that kid is how old? He acts like he’s two. When you lean down and speak to him gently, they snort. He acts like that because he needs to get spanked. If he were my kid… When you hug him, they all but laugh. You know he throws those tantrums because he gets what he wants.

You feel yourself wilting under their scrutiny, wishing you could have your own ADHD meltdown.

Pause. In the immortal words of Will Smith, the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, “Parents just don’t understand.” Except for us — the parents of children with ADHD. We understand that our kids sometimes act much (much, much) younger than their biological age. Some days this translates to a 9-year-old throwing an epic ADHD meltdown in the snack aisle. To a casual observer, this may look like just another brat kid going all Veruca Salt for Tostitos.

[Get This Free Download: Your Guide to Ending Confrontations and Defiance]

But take those deep breaths you always tell your kid to take.

Who matters in this situation: your kid, or those people who freely give out judgment but no grace? Look, you would not want to be friends with Judgey McJudgerson. When you see a parent with a kid melting down, you make eye contact. You give them a teensy smile. It’s like a little fist bump of neurodiverse solidarity: You got this. I’m on your side. 

Of course, people like you never appear when your kid is having an ADHD meltdown, but whatever.

We have a word for those people muttering at you when your kid is losing it. They’re called bullies. We’ve all been there. We have seen a child have an ADHD meltdown in the most embarrassing places: at church, at our in-laws’ Thanksgiving dinner table, at a crowded playdate. We’ve learned how to deal. It’s not easy and it’s not fun. But you can do it.

  1. Don’t take it personally. As your child screams, remember that they are not really screaming at you. It looks like it. It feels like it. But this ADHD meltdown has its cause in brain chemistry, not your parenting failure. Give yourself permission to remember that. Silently and frantically repeating “This is not my fault” might help at first.
  2. Name the most important person in this situation. Hint: It’s your kid. And as much as you might wish, in that moment, that you were not their parent, you are, and it’s your job to help them calm down. You know how to do that. You do it all the time.
  3. Disregard the bullies. Your kid is now yelling in your face. They are getting louder. The background muttering begins. Name the people who are not important in this situation — the bullies who are not helping.
  4. Focus on your child. Think of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”: Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate/ Baby I’m just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake/ Shake it off. If necessary, begin singing under your breath. This step will actually regulate your breathing and have some kind of regulatory psychological effect. Or something.
  5. Ignore Judgey McJudgerson’s eyes on you. It’s tempting to proclaim, “YOU ARE HAVING AN ADHD MELTDOWN. LET’S PRACTICE OUR BREATHING.” But that won’t make the bullies feel bad or stop judging. They might not believe ADHD exists, and if they do, they obviously don’t care enough to understand it. So don’t mortify your kid that way. They’re having a hard enough time already.
  6. Do what you know works. Calm your kid, all the while telling yourself these people don’t matter. Remain in triage mode, sing your Taylor Swift, and sweep victoriously past the haters. You have successfully negotiated an ADHD meltdown while ignoring parental judgment from all sides! High-five! Good job! Gold star for the day!
  7. Carry on. Once you have your kid calmed, finish whatever task you were trying to accomplish. Remember: triage mode.
  8. Go home. Pawn your kid off on your partner. If that’s not possible, wait until bedtime. Find a quiet place. Give yourself permission to feel all those bad feelings about failure and sadness and why can’t my kid be like other kids and why does he have to melt down next to the salsa and why do I always look like The Worst Parent Ever™? Quietly lose it. It’s okay.
  9. Take one of those deep breaths your kid refuses to take. Sing a bar of Taylor Swift. You love your kid. None of this means you don’t love your kid. It’s okay to wish for normal sometimes, because when you step back, you wouldn’t trade your child for any other on planet Earth. Imagine a mom or dad giving you a teensy smile. Imagine that standing behind you are all of the other parents reading this article right now. We’re saying: We’re been there. It’s okay. You got this. 

[Read: How to Prevent Meltdowns in Public]

People who have neurotypical children and plenty of judgment to spread around will always mutter at you. But you’re doing a great job. It doesn’t feel like it when your kid is shrieking, and people are staring and you want to sink into a shelf full of Cheetos. Having a neurodiverse kid is hard, and these people only make your life harder.

Here’s a great secret, though: They can only make your life harder if you let them. Their bullying sucks and it hurts. But remember, mid-meltdown, who’s the real priority. Sing your Taylor Swift. Then sweep past them like a runway model. They could not calm a child in the midst of an ADHD meltdown. They would wither under their own judgment. You are strong.

Haters gonna hate.

You got this.

ADHD Meltdown: Next Steps

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