Meltdowns & Anger

“Some Days, I Wish We’d Never Left the House”

If your child stages public meltdowns — not just once in a blue moon, but what feels like nearly twice a week — we feel your pain. A child’s explosive tantrums aren’t just frustrating — they can be downright humiliating for parents who feel the sting of public scrutiny. Stop the madness with these five strategies for parents to prevent, react to, and stop ADHD-fueled temper tantrums.

Angry boy with ADHD having a public tantrum and hitting his mother
Angry boy with ADHD having a public tantrum and hitting his mother

Do too many of your family meals out resemble wrestling matches worthy of WWE? What about that episode at the mall? Or that meltdown in church?

Some parents of children with ADHD are held hostage by their child’s bad behaviors, unable to go out to dinner, the movies, or anywhere, for fear of their child throwing a tantrum in public.

Say you’re in your favorite fast food place. Everyone is hungry, there’s a wait to order your food, and your child begins whining and having a meltdown. What do you do?

1. Say no, in a calm, matter-of-fact tone.

When Mom harrumphs, “Why do you always have to whine, Jordan?” she tells her child that she is weak and vulnerable. It seems that there is a chance of getting what he wants if he pushes. Kids hear “No” and “Maybe” at the same time.

Instead, parents of children with ADHD should say no in an unemotional, flat tone. Say, “It’s not happening.” No lecture, no explanation. This is just the way it is.

[Free Download: Your 10 Toughest Discipline Dilemmas — Solved!]

Over time, kids respect this tone because it becomes consistent — and consistency is so important for children with ADHD. It tells your child, “You can count on me, because I don’t change my mind. You can ask 7,000 times and the answer will still be no.”

2. Set clear expectations with specific statements.

Many parents of children with ADHD try bribery or make vague promises and threats: “We’ll see. It depends on how you behave at dinner.”

This is the last resort of tired, frustrated parents. You are saying, “I don’t want to put up with your tantrum now, so I’m going to string you along and bludgeon you with threats throughout dinner.”

When does “bad behavior” start? When the child misbehaves three times, seven times? Does the child really have a chance?

Be confident and specific, so that your kids know what to expect. Say yes or no. Don’t feel guilty about disappointing them.

[How to Prevent Meltdowns in Public]

3. Put out the emotional fire.

What happens if your calm “no” sets off a meltdown? Whining didn’t work, so now it’s time to embarrass you at the burger place with a full-blown temper tantrum.

Good! Take this opportunity to remind your child that he doesn’t get to choose your reactions. You do. Even though you feel embarrassed, frustrated, and resentful, you are not going to match the child’s screaming with your own. Yelling will escalate the confrontation.

Instead, assume a calm posture. Sit down, cross your legs. Color with crayons and ask your child to help. Pull your child into an activity with you. Being calm says that you are in control of the situation — not him.

4. Give your child concrete jobs to do.

Don’t yell, “Stop it now, Jordan! Cut it out!”

Instead of telling your child to stop, tell him what to do. Giving him a specific job, and an opportunity to be helpful, alleviates his anxiety.

“Jordan, do me a favor and save us a table by a window.” “Jordan and Sarah, could you get seven packets of ketchup, eight napkins, and four straws?”

Then give praise for a job well done. Kids with ADHD like to help. Enlist them.

5. Put energy into solving problems.

Have you noticed how intense we get when we’re focused on the negative? Instead, shift the energy of the conversation toward solving a problem.

“Cookies here? Not going to happen. But,” you say emphatically, your eyes wide, “do you think you guys could get your homework done tomorrow in time to bake chocolate chip cookies? Who wants to stir the mix and lick the spoon?”

By following these five steps, you will give your kids the consistency they need. They will learn that negotiating, whining, and melting down don’t work with you. You’re also teaching them constructive ways to deal with anger and frustration, skills they will find valuable as they grow up.

[Free Handout: 10 Ways to Neutralize Your Child’s Anger]

New Routines for Kids with ADHD

All behavior is learned through practice. So create a new tradition in your home. Say, “Jacob, you’re going to get frustrated, angry, and anxious throughout your life. I know that throwing a tantrum doesn’t feel good. What are you going to do the next time you get overwhelmed?” Develop a calming routine that you and your child can practice until it becomes the default response to frustration. The goal is to replace a negative response with a positive one. Here are some sample routines you can use:

  • jumping on a trampoline
  • listening to music
  • playing catch
  • eating a snack together

6 Comments & Reviews

  1. Some great tips, but I would advise against the use of meltdown and tantrum as interchangeable terms for the same behavior. A meltdown is an involuntary response to emotional or sensory distress/overload. A tantrum is a voluntary behavior choice. Using these disparate concepts as synonyms for each other reinforces the notion that a child in distress is choosing to misbehave—and, typically in my experience with parents—liable to be punished for it. I personally feel that punishing a tantrum or threatening to do so only further escalates the situation, and should be avoided, too, but this is especially the case when what one is witnessing is not a juvenile power play, but a person in acute distress. This article is eight years old, so I’m unsure why it’s suddenly gained attention now, but it would be worthwhile to check older pieces for these sorts of issues.

  2. I would like some tips on how to deal with an adult child with ADHD that lives with me who frequently screams at me or belittles me. He likes to control situations by being late, purposely or telling me who I can or cannot speak to. We are looking after him and his children as he is supposed to be starting a new career but having difficulty focusing on his studies. His behaviour has changed for the worse since he started ADHD medication.

  3. Good tips but tantrums and meltdowns are not the same. A non-ADHD child or ADHD child can manipulate with a tantrum. But, the melt-down, I would suggest is totally different. My adult child who probably did both, still struggles with melt-downs as a highly successful digital marketing professional. She has learned to tell her supervisor when she is overwhelmed and has sought council when overwhelmed by a very sensitive newborn. I am proud of her and she teaches me constantly. Fortunately, she married a non-ADHD man who understands her well. I feel blessed that he understands her better than the so called professionals and does not think she is simply “manipulative”.

  4. Also, if an ADHD person struggles with anxiety, which many do, then ADHD meds simply make the anxiety worse. The docs say to treat the anxiety first before giving ADHD stimulant meds. Often they need the ADHD meds if you address the anxiety. We have learned to compensate well!

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