Meltdowns & Anger

“Can’t You Control Your Child in Public?”

How understanding ADHD behaviors will better help our children.

Angry boy with ADHD swings toy sword outside
Angry boy with ADHD swings toy sword outside

Children who have ADHD often act up in public. So, by the way, do their adult counterparts like me. I remember once I got so bored in a lecture given at the Harvard Faculty Club that I ached inside. I was sitting next to a window as the lecturer droned on and on.

Finally, the boredom hurt so much I could stand it no longer. The window offered an instant solution. In a flash, I opened it and I jumped out. Thank goodness we were on the first floor.

As a child I am sure my behavior was similarly “inappropriate.” But the reason resides in my brain, not in my moral fiber or my parents’ style of disciplining me.

[Free Handout: Manage Your Child’s Anger]

The uninformed bystander does not realize that people who have ADHD have two self-perpetuating characteristics: turbo-charged engine-brains as well as faulty brakes. Once we get going, we often go too fast and then it’s hard for us to stop! In technical jargon, professionals refer to this problem as poor impulse control. Medicine and behavioral therapy can help, but not completely.

To make matters worse, children with ADHD need plenty of outside structure to counteract their internal disarray. Predictable schedules and routines can help keep them contained. But public places like supermarkets, shopping malls and airports lack the calming predictability and structure of home and school. Noise, crowds, and uncertainty can cause anxious ADHD children to bubble over and erupt out of control.

It is important to note, if you are such a bystander, that the parent and ADHD child are usually doing their best. While ADHD is an invisible condition most of the time, one of its common manifestations, disruptive behavior, gets most of the attention. After the disruption is over, both parent and child often feel mortified, which only makes them feel worse..

Indeed, in my experience both personally and professionally, ADHD is less of a problem than the people who misunderstand it. People with ADHD want to do their best. They know only too well that they often fall short. I think of a little boy who was running all over my office throwing things around. When I finally distracted him enough for him to sit down and talk to me, I said, “Wow, look at all this!” The boy looked up at me and covered his face. Then he said, “I am so embarrassed!” He had not intended to tear up my office. His brakes had failed him once again.

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have ODD?]

I’m not saying ADHD is an excuse; part of this boy’s job in life will be to learn methods to build better brakes. But ADHD is an explanation, and a far truer, more helpful explanation than shame, blame or humiliation.