Meltdowns & Anger

When “Keep Your Hands to Yourself” Doesn’t Work

Hitting can be a problem for any child — whether he has ADHD or not. Learn how keeping calm, sharing empathy, and rewarding good behavior can help your child control his emotions.

Boy with ADHD wearing boxing gloves and taking out aggression on punching bag
Boy with ADHD wearing boxing gloves and taking out aggression on punching bag

Is your child with ADHD a hitter? Does he shove people or throw things at them? Does she ignore warnings to “keep your hands to yourself”? Well, take heart. It may take a while, but aggressive kids can learn to control their impulses. Here’s how you can help:

Define the problem. Each time your child gets physically aggressive, let him know exactly what he did wrong. Tell him what to do the next time a similar situation arises. “Use your words when angry” works better than “Don’t hit.”

Control your emotions. It’s not easy to stay calm when your child has just punched a playmate for the umpteenth time. But do your best. The next time your child lashes out, discipline her by demonstrating appropriate behavior by speaking calmly, but firmly, rather than by shouting (or spanking).

Try empathy. Let your child know that you understand how hard it is to control aggression. Once she calms down, say something like, “You seemed to be angry because your friend won the game” or, “I know you get angry when other children tease you, but hitting will only hurt your friendships.” Listen carefully to what she says in response, so you can provide support.

Ask for suggestions. Telling your child to say, “Stop it, you’re bothering me” may not do the trick. In emotionally charged situations, kids with ADHD have trouble recalling phrases like that. Instead, ask your child what he thinks he can do to rein in his aggression when something bothers him.

Reward good behavior. Praising your child for not hitting makes sense, of course, but specific rewards are extra incentives. Come up with rewards your child can claim for good behavior. It might be a toy, or being the one to pick out a movie on Friday night, or “special time” when the parent is “all hers.”

Impose consequences. Let your child know the specific consequences she will face the next time she resorts to physical aggression. Depending upon your child’s age, the consequences might include a time-out, writing a letter of apology, losing a special privilege, and so on.

Identify “hot spots.” Does your child pick fights at birthday parties? During playdates? Identify those situations, and consider whether you can modify them (by reducing the number of children at a playdate) or skip them.

Reassure him. If your child is in a blue mood following an aggressive episode, make sure he doesn’t feel too discouraged. Tell him you love him. Remind him of the times he did maintain self-control — and of what a great child he is.

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