For many people, when they think of ADHD, they picture a child—usually a little boy—bouncing in his classroom seat, eyes darting around the room as the teacher struggles to hold his attention. We picture a child who moves constantly, as if driven by an internal motor. We picture impulsivity, absentmindedness, forgetfulness.
But there’s another component of ADHD that we often neglect to talk about even though it’s incredibly common: anger.
Of course, kids without ADHD can become angry too, but the difference is in how they express it or whether they even express it at all. Controlling anger requires behavioral brakes—that little pause where we take a beat to consider whether that impulse to punch a wall is really the wisest course of action. A child with ADHD lacks the impulse control to ruminate on something that’s made them angry before lashing out. And, to be frank, kids with ADHD generally have more to be upset about than kids without it.
Go back to the picture of the little boy with the standard presentation of ADHD symptoms. He is restless, fidgety, forgetful, absentminded, impulsive.
And everyone is constantly reminding him of it.
My son is often grounded from electronics for the day before we even leave the house. Mornings end up rushed and stressful no matter how much time I give him. Then he moves on to school with its litany of to-do lists and obligations and instructions and social interactions and blaring bells and rules and boxes you have to fit in. My son, like so many kids who have ADHD, is continuously reminded by his teachers to sit still, stop talking, do your work, stay on task. His friends are wonderfully supportive and accepting, but many kids with ADHD have difficulty making and keeping friends.
Kids with ADHD aren’t allowed to forget their shortcomings. They may not notice all the tiny details we feel are important, but they do notice when they’re harped on, criticized, and ostracized. They know they have to work 10 times harder than other kids to maintain the same level of focus or get the same grades. Is it any wonder they erupt in anger?
I have accused my son of being short-tempered, as if it’s just in his nature. Or I’ve simply attributed his outbursts to his impulsivity, part of his ADHD. But that’s not a fair assessment. He may be impulsive, but the truth is, he’s also stressed and exhausted from carrying around the weight of everyone’s criticism. This would be a lot to cope with even for a non-ADHD adult brain.
Here are a few things parents can do to help their child with ADHD learn to better cope with anger:
1. Remain calm.
I’ll be the first to admit how difficult it is to stay calm when my kid is having a code-red meltdown. I consider myself a patient person, but when I haven’t been allowed to finish a sentence for 5 minutes because my kid keeps barking at me that I “don’t understand” as I try to help him with homework, I really just want to scream.
I have to remind myself that my child has much less control over his impulses than other kids. I believe he can and will learn self-control, but it will take longer and may always be something he struggles with. Screaming at him teaches him nothing—it only breaks him down and makes him feel incompetent and less-than. Not only that, but if I can model what “calm” looks like, my son will have a much easier time learning to be calm himself.
2. Provide consistent consequences.
Kids need boundaries, but ADHD kids really need boundaries. Impulsivity and anger typically go hand in hand—impulsiveness leads to bad decisions which lead to punishment which leads to anger. Or anger triggers impulsive, rage-fueled outbursts. But firm, fair boundaries provide an environment with fewer surprises and therefore fewer opportunities for outrage from your kid when they’re suddenly faced with a consequence for not doing what they’re supposed to do.
3. Try medication.
For many kids with ADHD, stimulant medication can be a game-changer. These medications can help quiet the noise in a child’s mind and give them those all-important extra few seconds to contemplate an impulse. It can sometimes be the difference between punching a hole in the wall or not.
Every brain is different though, and medication doesn’t help all kids—for some it can make them even more irritable. So be sure to be vigilant and keep your doctor in the loop if you decide to try this route.
4. Try mindfulness meditation.
More and more research is pointing to the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation, for children as well as adults. Meditation can be practiced in just five minutes per day, or really any amount of time a child with ADHD is willing to dedicate to it. A few minutes of sitting still while focused on the sensation of the breath entering and leaving the body is really all it takes.
Mindfulness meditation is all about training the mind to be present in the moment, to notice thoughts and sensations without judgment, anxiety, or a sense of urgency to act. It essentially trains the brain to develop behavioral brakes—impulse control. The very thing that is often lacking in children with ADHD. For a child with ADHD who struggles with anger, meditation can have a huge positive impact.
5. Be aware.
Take note of when your child gets angry—is it typically the same time of day every day, or perhaps when they are hungry? Sometimes angry outbursts can be avoided by simply noting the triggers. My son gets testy when he’s hungry, so sometimes when I sense he’s about to lose his cool, I’ll tell him he needs to get a snack before we can finish our conversation. It works!
6. Label and explain.
Like meditation, labeling emotions and identifying their causes is a tool we can give our kids to help them develop self-awareness and impulse control. The more they are able to identify emotions and the triggers for those emotions, the better equipped they’ll be down the line to independently control their impulses.
7. If all else fails, ignore.
Sometimes the best response to a rage-filled outburst, as long as everyone is safe, is no response at all. The toothpaste is out of the tube and there simply is no putting it back, and, in those instances, you can choose not to exacerbate the situation by making threats or attempting to reason. Sending your child to a different room or leaving the room yourself might be the best or only way to regain peace.
8. Always loop back.
Most important after an angry outburst, no matter how it finally ends, is to reconnect with our kids. When my son loses his temper or we somehow spiral into a screaming match over homework or yet another wet towel on the floor, I always make sure to come back when things are calmer so we can talk. We review what happened and try to make a plan for each of us to do better next time.
ADHD can be damaging to a child’s self-esteem, for the reasons mentioned before, so it’s critical to come back and reattach, make it clear that you forgive them, and that they are loved no matter what.