ADHD Therapies

CBT and the Bad Mood Monster Under The Bed

Bad moods happen, especially when a child with ADHD feels overwhelmed as a result of his condition. Learn how to used cognitive behavioral therapy and relaxation kids to help your child get rid of mood monsters and find calm.

A ADHD young boy with anxiety crying outdoors
Young ADHD boy crying outdoors

John’s mom came to his session in tears. “What can I do about the horrible mood that John is in every day after school?” Children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) often experience emotions more intensely than their peers, and can become overwhelmed by sadness or worry. Depression and anxiety, which are primarily disorders of mood regulation, commonly coexist with the symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

Some children need medical intervention to combat depression or anxiety, so it’s important to consult with your child’s doctor. But most children can be taught to regulate their bad moods and ADHD behavior problems with some simple cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques. CBT is a form of therapy that teaches people how to control their moods or behavior by changing their thought patterns. Here are some of the methods I taught John and his parents to help him feel in charge of, rather than controlled by, his “mood monsters.”

Make the moods visible.

Children often experience anxiety as a sense of dread. Maybe your child is terribly afraid of going to her room alone. When you ask why, she answers, “I don’t know.” Ask your child to draw a picture of what her bad feelings look like, and give a form to her anxiety. Having an image of the “monster” makes it easier to fight it off.

[Free Resource: Everything You Need to Know About CBT]

Give feelings a name.

Labeling depression, anxiety, or other feelings can make them easier to manage, too. Practice identifying feelings and facial expressions. (Try the “How Are You Feeling Today?” poster at Take turns with your child, pointing to faces that look “Mad,” “Excited,” “Sad,” or “Worried,” and describing a time when each of you experienced such a feeling. This exercise reminds kids that grown-ups have different types of feelings, too, and that they learn to master them.

Chase away bad feelings.

Relaxation, breathing techniques, and visual imagery can help kids fight off depression and anxiety. Practice these in the evenings (they’ll also help your child unwind before bedtime). Once he’s mastered a calming technique, he can use it to stop a bad feeling in its tracks.

  • Relax: Have your child lie down and focus on and relax one body part at a time-hands, arms, chest-until his entire body is calm and anxious feelings have been crowded out.
  • Breathe: Teach your child to breathe in deeply, count from one to three, then breathe out. As breathing slows, the body becomes more relaxed. If your child focuses on each breath, he won’t be able to focus on the bad thoughts, moving them from the center of his attention.
  • Visualize: Ask your child to think about happy times or a good feeling. One boy I worked with would imagine himself “being licked by a whole bunch of puppies.” Another child pictured walking through a cool forest. If your child is fearful of a particular situation, such as a test, he should picture himself successfully completing the test.

Practice what you teach.

When children see their parents taking a deep breath or talking about feelings, they adopt such techniques more readily to fight off mood monsters. Help your child learn to calm himself, rather than feed his worry: “I know we can find a way to make this better for you. How should we solve this?” Chances are, your confidence will inspire him to find a solution.

[The Success Mindset for ADHD Procrastinators, Dreamers & Survivors]