Meltdowns & Anger

When Angry Kids Lash Out: How to Defuse Explosive Reactions

Emotionally dysregulated children with ADHD can learn to come down from (and prevent) explosive reactions by practicing emotional regulation skills. Here’s how to respond to outbursts in the moment and how to reinforce self-soothing skills over time.

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Credit: Nataliia Nesterenko/Getty Images

Emotional dysregulation is a defining characteristic of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which explains why so many children and teens with ADHD are easily swept away by intense emotions — resulting in explosive, aggressive, sometimes frightening reactions that disrupt the entire family.

Reasoning with dysregulated, angry kids in the middle of a breakdown is practically impossible. The best approach in the moment is to stop the meltdown from escalating. But what matters most is what’s done in between explosive reactions to reduce their severity and frequency over time.

Angry Kids: A Guide to De-escalating Meltdowns

Remain Calm

Children tend to mirror the behaviors they observe. Try to reflect to your child a sense of calm, cooperation, and control. Avoid fueling your child’s explosive episode with shouts and flashes of anger. The following techniques also help defuse intense situations:

  • Avoid big, quick gestures and movements that could startle your child.
  • Join your child’s eye level; avoid looking down at them.
  • Maintain some physical distance (about two arms’ lengths away), though it’s OK if your child wants to close the distance.

Avoid Arguing

Your emotionally dysregulated child will likely try to suck you down an argument rabbit hole where they will defeat or deflect everything you say to get you as upset and overwhelmed as they are. Ultimately, arguments only move you away from the real issue at hand.

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Step Away

Temporarily walk away from the situation, especially if your child’s goal is to see you and other family members upset. Physically removing yourself helps avoid enabling or otherwise reinforcing your child’s meltdowns. It sends the message that you and others in the family will not come to a screeching halt and bend to their demands. Use the following scripts as you walk away:

  • “I see that you’ve lost control of yourself. I’ll be back in a few minutes to give you time to calm down.”
  • “It looks like you’re overwhelmed right now. I’m going to give you a chance to go outside and calm down a few notches. I’ll be back in about 10 minutes and we can pick up from there.”
  • “It must be very difficult to feel out of control right now. What would be helpful to you right now in getting this under control so that you can feel better?”

Walking away may also help you keep calm so you can model emotional regulation for your child. If you have a young child, reassure them that you’ll be back once you’re calm. For children and teens of all ages, provide a loose time frame, and explain what you’ll do to self-regulate, be it breathing exercises or going for a walk.

Create a Diversion

One of the best ways to distract your child from their emotional overwhelm is to ask for their narrative. Try to get your child to explain what they’re upset about and why, and what would help them feel better. Articulating their side of the story will help them regain a sense of control. Asking questions will also help your child feel heard and validated, which can do wonders for emotional regulation overall.

[Read: 10 Rules for Dealing with the Explosive Child]

Other Strategies

  • If your child is young enough, gently hug them for a few minutes if they’re lurching at siblings or other family members during a meltdown. Sometimes the simple act of hugging will calm down a child.
  • Avoid doling out consequences in the middle of a meltdown. Often, punishment in those moments only teaches children and teens to be more devious and covert in their behaviors. Allow your child the opportunity to calm down by retreating to a spot of their choice.
  • Prioritize your safety if your child’s aggressive episodes threaten your wellbeing.

Before and After the Explosion: Foster Emotional Regulation

All strategies to defuse explosive reactions work best when there’s a culture of respect and communication at home. As central as emotional dysregulation is to ADHD, it doesn’t preclude children and teens from learning about and trying to use tools and strategies to self-regulate.

Talk to Your Child About Their Reactions

The goal of these conversations is to reinforce the idea that explosive outbursts serve no one. You want your child to understand that you’re not dismissing their feelings – just their method of coping. Don’t be discouraged if your child agrees with you but continues to have outbursts. Prepare to have this conversation many, many times – practice patience as your child tries to put what they know into practice, a real challenge of ADHD.

Self-awareness comes with age, so you’ll need to help your child recognize their unique stressors, the patterns their meltdowns tend to follow, and what helps them calm down. Proper sleep, nutrition, exercise, hydration, and other healthy habits play a role in regulating mood, and your child may need help tuning in to their body to recognize these needs.

As you determine patterns to the meltdowns, consider the possible role of other conditions, like anxiety and especially oppositional defiant disorder, by speaking with your child’s doctor. Many individuals with ADHD also experience rejection sensitive dysphoria, characterized by sensitivity to criticism, which also affects their emotional responses.

As you help your child, think about your own triggers and what helps you self-soothe and manage stress. Practice self-care so that you can feel and act your best around your child.

Set Realistic Goals for Your Child

ADHD or not, and even with all the coping tools in the world, it’s unrealistic to expect that your child will never have another outburst. But it is realistic to hope for their responses to improve, so that explosive reactions become infrequent, less disruptive, and easier to manage.

Angry Kids and Explosive Reactions: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude Mental Health Out Loud episode titled, “How to De-escalate Explosive Stress Reactions” [Video Replay and Podcast #409] with William Dodson, M.D., which was broadcast live on June 29, 2022.

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