Q: My ADHD Teen Reacts Aggressively to Limits!
Anger issues erupt when teens with ADHD lack clear boundaries and consequences. Good behavior results from a feeling of safety and consistency that comes from parental containment, an authoritative approach that is as unambiguous as it is powerful. Here is how to put it into action.
Daniel was a landmine – silent and solitary until a family member stepped the wrong way, and then he would explode. For Daniel’s parents, the most gruesome misstep was refusing him unlimited access to screens. When they put limits on his video-game play, 14-year-old Daniel would scream at his parents and younger brother and sister. He would also threaten suicide and motion toward his parents as if he were going to hit them.
Still, Daniel’s parents were very consistent about limiting his video game usage as they knew that excessive gaming often led to even greater irritability and self-centered behavior, which is exactly what I experienced with my son as well (and why his Xbox left our house for more than a year). Despite trying multiple therapists, Daniel was not successful in improving his behavior. In fact, it became worse through middle school. After stumbling on my ADHD and Arguing video, his parents reached out to me.
How to Contain Anger Issues in Kids with ADHD
I explained to Daniel’s parents that research shows medication combined with behavioral parent training is the most effective intervention for kids with ADHD. Counseling or forms of “talk therapy,” on the other hand, are not effective for kids with ADHD.
On a daily basis, I speak with families who are struggling to manage their kids’ behavior at home. Often, these kids do not present with the same behavioral or self-regulation challenges in school, which can leave parents feeling despondent.
While some kids spend all their mental energy “keeping it together” during school, and need to “unload” at home, that is often not the case (as it often is for kids with higher-verbal autism.) What I typically find is that expectations/rules/boundaries at home are too abstract or inconsistent, or kids are allowed to negotiate rules and consequences, thus they do not feel contained, or emotionally safe when they become dysregulated.
How Containment Works to Solve Anger Issues
Many kids with ADHD are “black-or-white thinkers,” meaning they see things fitting into one extreme or the other. They have difficulty understanding nuances, or things that are not concrete. Here is why and how “containment” strategies work for them:
Imagine your child wearing a large rubber band around their middle. As they navigate life, they must push against this rubber band to see how far it will stretch before they snap back to the center of the circle. No matter what direction they push against the rubber band, it will snap them back into the middle.
The rubber band doesn’t negotiate its pliability. It doesn’t respond to their emotional reactivity or their harsh words. It simply does its job: keeping them contained and pushing them back into the center. Knowing that this rubber band will consistently do its job is what helps kids feel emotionally safe.
This rubber band is an analogy for a child’s primary caretaker(s). Parents help kids feel emotionally safe by being consistent with their expectations, boundaries, and ability to regulate their own emotions when their child or teen is emotionally dysregulated.
Putting Containment Into Practice
When I met Daniel’s parents, they were more like a thin paper streamer wrapped around Daniel. A paper streamer is not elastic; it can be ripped easily. For years, Daniel had broken through this streamer, which left him uncontained and unsettled. To make matters worse, unclear boundaries emboldened Daniel; he tried to control his parents through threats of physical aggression and emotionally manipulate them through suicide threats. He was successful in achieving both. Daniel’s parents had become afraid of his potential for aggression and genuinely believed he may attempt suicide if he did not get what he wanted.
I explained the rubber band concept to Daniel’s parents and how Daniel needed clear expectations, boundaries, and consequences for exhibiting severe behaviors. I was clear with them that if they allowed the aggressive gestures and suicide threats to continue, Daniel very well may cross the line to physically assaulting them. (I felt he was not serious about the suicidal threats from what they shared; when confronted, he admitted making an empty threat out of anger.)
I told them the story of another family dealing with similar issues. I had instructed the parents to call the police if their son became physically aggressive toward them or threatened suicide. The next time their son made a suicidal threat, the police came to their house and his suicidal threats and gestures of physical aggression stopped. He now knew where his parents drew the line.
Avoid the “Argument Vortex” at All Costs
Kids with ADHD are incredibly endearing for many reasons: their authenticity, empathy for others, and loyalty in friendships, to name just a few. They can also be highly skilled at emotionally manipulating their parents, as Daniel had demonstrated.
Kids with ADHD succeed when boundaries and expectations are concrete and consistent. This helps them to feel contained. When kids with ADHD feel contained and know that their parents are acting as that rubber band, the feel safer. When they feel safer, their day-to-day behavior tends to be more positive. The rubber band analogy I used here could be called an authoritative parenting approach, combined with strong self-regulation by the parents.
When kids can pull their parents into the reason or argument vortex, when they can emotionally manipulate their parents or make their parents acquiesce to their demands, they learn that their parents are not serving as a rubber band, but rather a paper streamer. This, in turn, causes them to feel not contained, which in turn causes more behavioral challenges for parents.
The parents with whom I work are dedicated, loving, and attentive. They are not doing anything “wrong.” When I teach them how to take a more authoritative parenting approach, and how to establish concrete and consistent rules, boundaries, and expectations, they almost always “get it.” I am always honest with them that, with any shift in a parenting approach, things may get worse before they get better as their child with ADHD realizes that what worked for them no longer works. But in the long run he will feel contained, and this will help his behavior improve.
Anger Issues: Next Steps
- Read: Anger Is Important — But Only When It’s Managed
- Download: How to Deal with Anger From Your Child
- Guide: How to Teach Emotional Regulation Skills
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