Meltdowns & Anger

The Sad Truth About Tantrum Triggers

Your child’s outbursts are not random. Her tantrums often follow on the heels of a mistake that triggers feelings of failure or frustration. These emotional-control strategies can help.

A depiction of how adhd moods can be very intense yet change frequently, sometimes resulting in adhd tantrums.
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Emotional Control

Emotional control, is the ability to manage your feelings in order to achieve goals, complete tasks, or direct behavior. Some kids with attention deficit handle their emotions just fine; others don’t. What's true for every child: Empathy works well.

A mother hugs her child after an ADHD tantrum is over.
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Practice Forgiveness

Encourage your child to forgive herself for mistakes. Emotional upset is caused less by specific situations or events and more by what we tell ourselves about that situation. For example, if your child is upset about forgetting her homework, help her redirect that anger into planning ways she can remember to bring it tomorrow.

A child throwing an ADHD tantrum.
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Create a 5-Point Scale

Use a scale to help your child gauge how upset she is and help her make a coping strategy for each step. The scale might look like this:

  1. This doesn’t bother me at all.
  2. I can talk myself down.
  3. I can feel my heart speeding up...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 have a meltdown and lose emotional control – I need to leave the situation for a few minutes.

[Free Download: Why Is My Child So Defiant?]

A girl writes out her feelings to avoid having an ADHD tantrum
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Write It Out

Work with your child to 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, not a loss of emotional control.

A dad gives his son a high five after avoiding an ADHD tantrum.
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Give Praise

Be sure to point out when your child shows good emotional control and give praise where it’s due. You could say, “I saw how angry you were, but you kept your cool. Nice job.”

A little girl sleeps in bed. Sleep is key to avoid ADHD tantrums during the day.
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Get Some Shuteye

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 handle and do.

A boy with ADHD listens to music to avoid having a tantrum.
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Develop a Plan of Action

Help your child plan for problem situations by coming up with some coping strategies together. For example, when a situation gets heated, your child can let you know when she needs a break. 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).

[How do You Recharge After Your Child Has a Temper Tantrum?]

A child writes ways to avoid having an ADHD tantrum.
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Craft a Hard-Times Board

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 her recover from being upset. Commend your child when she uses one of the coping strategies from her board.

Two pairs of shoes in the home of a family with ADHD.
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Lead by Example

Show your child how you cope with emotional upset. For instance, explain how if you find yourself getting cranky and you’re afraid you might say something mean, set the timer for three minutes and take a time-out to calm down. Strategies that work for you may also work for your child.

A father reads a book with his daughter about how to control emotions and avoid ADHD tantrums.
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Read All About It

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.

[Self-Test: Does Your Child Have Oppositional Defiant Disorder?]

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  1. These are great ideas — I particularly like the 5-point scale. I will be trying that with my child. One other thing I find that works with my son when he’s headed towards losing emotional control is encouraging him to play. It might be tossing a ball up in the air, or shooting baskets, or any number of other things. Play really seems to help us manage his behaviors.

    Dr. Kirsten Milliken has a book, Playdhd, that has a ton of great play suggestions. And I really like the way she explains how play can help the ADHD brain. She has a Facebook page, and is doing a series of interviews on Facebook Live with people affected by ADHD, worth checking out.

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