Meltdowns & Anger

To Master Anger, First Understand It

Your child is prone to violent outbursts and angry tirades, which is frustrating — not to mention scary. Teach her to manage her anger with these strategies — designed by noted ADHD expert Ned Hallowell to lift the burden from parents and empower kids.

Emotional control strategies for children with ADHD that don't involve boxing gloves
Photo by "Ari Bakker "

Are your child’s angry outbursts — about homework, making friends, your family, the world — ringing in your ears? Have arguments and shouting kept you up nights, asking: Where is this anger coming from, and how can I help him deal with it? Here are two strategies that work.

The first anger management strategy is exercise. Physical activity takes your child’s mind off the causes of his anger, while increasing neurotransmitters in the brain that support wellbeing. Your fuse isn’t quite as short after you’ve broken a sweat. Playing a team sport, or taking a martial arts or a boxing class, offers an additional benefit: A child may connect with a new role model — his coach or sensei.

Much less talked about is teaching a child to use words to manage anger. Language plays a pivotal role in defusing rage. When you use words, you have to reflect on what you’re feeling rather than lashing out. In a nutshell, words force a child to slow down and think things through. Children who have problems with language act more impulsively and angrily than those who can explain how they feel.

Teaching Children with ADHD to Use Words to Express Anger

Encourage your child to explain his feelings. When he is frustrated, say, “Use your words, Sammy.” When she is angry, say, “Annie, tell me how you feel.” If your child says, “I’m so mad, I feel like hitting you!” the confession is better than committing the act. Applaud the fact that she is expressing herself instead of acting out.

[Quiz: Could Your Child Have Oppositional Defiant Disorder?]

To sharpen your child’s facility with words, make a habit of reading aloud to her, or, as she gets older, reading to each other. Play word games on long drives, at dinner, or while standing in line. These will increase her ability to use language to describe how she feels.

Help for Parents of Angry Teens with ADHD

What if you have an aggressive teen with ADHD who ignores your warnings and elbows you out of the way when he’s upset? Again, words are important. Use them to negotiate a contract — “If you do X, Y will happen. If you don’t, Z will.” Consequences should not change, and must be consistently enforced.

When he does break the contract, physical chores — mowing the lawn or washing the car — make good punishments. Physical exertion will release the aggression that landed him in trouble.

If the angry behavior continues, persist. Also add reinforcements — have a favorite uncle or an adult/mentor talk with him. And keep coming back to the contract. Defusing anger is sometimes a battle of wills. Your child should understand that you have a bigger circle of support than he can fend off.

[Free Parenting Resource: Manage Your Child’s Anger]

Is Your Child’s Anger a Sign of Something More?

Ten to 15 percent of children have a diagnosable disruptive disorder, such as oppositional defiant disorder. If any of the following apply, you should seek medical advice:

  • Your child is markedly more angry or out of control than his peers
  • You hear repeatedly from those you trust that your child is extremely aggressive, even if you don’t see it yourself
  • Your child is dangerous to himself
  • Other children don’t feel safe around her
  • You fear your child
  • Your child is consistently disobedient
  • Your child lacks empathy or conscience

[When His Anger Overpowers Logic — and Love]