Meltdowns & Anger

Take a Deep Breath: Teaching Kids to Control Emotions

Meltdowns happen. But when your child has ADHD, it can be more difficult for him to learn how to control emotions and impulsive reactions. Teach him how to keep his cool with a plan for action and coping strategies.

Little girl with ADHD angrily pressing face against glass door
Little girl with ADHD angrily pressing face against glass door

Controlling emotions, or emotional control, is the ability to manage emotions in order to achieve goals, complete tasks, or direct behavior. A young child who has this skill can recover from a disappointment — a low grade on a math test — in short time. A teenager can manage anxiety over taking a test and perform well. Some kids with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) handle their emotions just fine, others don’t. Empathy works well with all these children. Parents and teachers can say, “This is frustrating for you, isn’t it?” or “It gets to you when teachers (or parents) don’t understand how hard you’re working to control your feelings, doesn’t it?”

Control Emotions in the Classroom

Avoid problem situations. Don’t place a child with ADHD next to someone who knows how to push his buttons. If a child gets upset with open-ended assignments, quickly help her get started so she doesn’t have time to feel frustrated.

Give the child a plan for handling problem situations. “When you don’t understand an assignment, I want you to raise your hand and say, ‘I think I need a little help to get me started on this.'”

Control Emotions at School

Encourage the child to forgive himself for mistakes. Emotional upset is caused less by specific situations or events and more by what we tell ourselves about that situation. Say to the child, “It looks like you’re telling yourself that leaving your homework at home is a disaster. Maybe you could tell yourself, ‘Oops — forgot that homework assignment. What can I do to remember to bring it tomorrow?'”

Create a 5-point scale to help the child gauge how upset she is. Help her make a coping strategy for each step on the scale. For a child who has meltdowns when there’s an unexpected change in schedule, the scale might look like this:

[Self-Test: Signs of Emotional Hyperarousal]

  1. This doesn’t bother me at all.
  2. I can talk myself down.
  3. I can feel my heart speeding up a little … I’ll take 10 deep breaths to relax.
  4. OK, this is getting to me, I probably need to “take 5” to regroup.
  5. I’m about to melt down, so I need to leave the class for a few minutes.

Write a story. Create a one-paragraph “social story” that addresses a child’s problem situation — getting in trouble on the playground, the disappointment that comes with earning a bad grade, nervousness when the student has to perform in front of a group — and ends happily with a coping strategy.

Give praise. Notice when a child shows good emotional control. You could say, “I saw how angry you were, but you kept your cool. Nice job.”

Practice Emotional Control at Home

Make sure your child gets enough sleep. Fatigue increases problems with emotional control. Schedules and daily routines help children better regulate their emotions, because they know what they have to do and handle.

[What Kids Need to Be Happy]

Give your child coping strategies. She can say, “I need to go to my bedroom for a few minutes to be alone” or tell you a break is needed. Other self-soothing strategies include holding a favorite stuffed animal (for a younger child) or listening to relaxing music on an mp3 player (for an older child).

Help your child create a “hard-times board.” List three categories on it: 1) the triggers — what makes your child upset; 2) the can’t-do’s — the behavior that’s not permitted at times of upset; and 3) the can-do’s — two or three coping strategies (draw a picture, take a five-minute break, get a drink of water) to help him recover from being upset. Praise your child when he uses one of the coping strategies from his board.

Read books on emotional control with your child. What to Do When Your Temper Flares and What to Do When You Worry Too Much, both by Dawn Huebner, describe coping strategies for taking control over unpleasant emotions.

Give your child a plan for problem situations. If your child gives up without trying when a homework assignment appears difficult, suggest, “Here’s what I want you to say to yourself before starting this: ‘I know this will be hard for me, but I’m going to keep trying. If I get stuck after trying hard, I will ask for help.'”

Show how you cope with emotional upset. For instance, “If I find myself getting cranky and I’m afraid I might say something mean, I’ll set the timer for three minutes and take a time-out to see if I can calm down.

[Video: How ADHD Amplifies Emotions]