HOW TO COPE WITH ADHD MELTDOWNS & TANTRUMS
“I can cope and will always cope with my child but I can’t handle the tantrums,”
conceded one South African mom of an ADHD-diagnosed daughter. The tantrums and meltdowns – the extreme crying, shouting, and fits of anger – are often what ignites the fire within every parent, testing our patience and self-control.
The words tantrum and meltdown are often used interchangeably, yet there is a difference. When your child is upset but can control their outburst or you can divert their attention during the ‘episode’, that is a tantrum. It’s triggered by things such as physical discomfort (tired, hungry, sick), sensory overstimulation, the inability to ask for or get what they want, and a desire for attention.
On the other hand, if your child is overwhelmed and can’t control their distress (even to the point of physical exhaustion), that’s a meltdown. And this is what parents of ADHD children often experience: the extreme meltdown and the stress that accompanies it. Speaking to the Child Mind Institute, clinical psychologist Dr David Anderson explained: “There’s no malicious intent on the part of these young kids. [It’s] because of the hyperactive and impulsive symptoms of ADHD.”
ADHD symptoms and meltdowns
Your child’s hyperactivity makes things like sitting quietly or staying quiet, hard. He may get irritated quickly and feel frustrated if he has to wait for an appointment, for instance, visit a library or sit for extra tuition after a long day at school. His impulsivity makes him say or do things without thinking, and may get angry when things don’t go his way. His inattention symptoms make it difficult to focus on activities that require a lot of concentration, and he may get bored quickly or feel frustrated when he can’t concentrate. To top it off, he may become more frustrated and upset when he is misunderstood by others.
Fortunately, as your child grows, they will learn how to express their needs and manage their emotions appropriately.
The next time your child is in the throes of a meltdown, here are a few points to help you defuse it:
• Make sure that there’s nothing in the room that can hurt your child.
• Speak to your child in a calm, even tone (even if it feels like you’re going to lose your temper). Acknowledge their feelings and let your child know that you understand what they’re going through.
• If they’re angry about a specific rule, repeat the rule firmly. Don’t argue.
• Keep your words to a minimum and wait until their distress has quieted before having a conversation about it.
• If your child is out of control, take a time out and go to another room for a few minutes.
If your child is in midst of a tantrum, ignore the tantrum. This teaches them that tantrums won’t work.
Preventing meltdowns before they happen
Keep showing your child your love – next time you ask for something, she’s more likely to do it.
Encourage good behaviour – praise your child when they are well behaved. Show them good behaviour so that they can copy it and praise him when he behaves well.
Give gentle reminders ahead of transitions. Quick transitions may lead to a meltdown, especially if they have to stop an activity they enjoy. Remind your child at 30-, 15-, 10-and 5-minute intervals.
Don’t criticise your child for things that are not under her control — such as the biological symptoms of ADHD. If your teenager with ADHD has an emotional meltdown, he is being emotional, not “bad”.
To motivate your child to learn self-control, give her reward coupons for whatever she loves to do (e.g. staying up late on the weekend, having more screen time or eating her favourite take-out). Together with your child, decide on what the reward coupons are, and what earns the reward.
If your child has misbehaved, explain to him the consequences of his behaviour, using simple language. Be clear and specific about what to expect if he does misbehave. And be consistent with following through with consequences.
When your child has a meltdown or misbehaves, have a “reaction” plan in place for yourself, i.e. if she calls you names, for instance, “script” what you are going to say and how you will act so that you can deal with her calmly and constructively.
Similarly, for tantrums, the US-based National Institute of Health, suggests the CALM method:
Communicate well, demonstrating excellent communication skills. For young children, use feeling words so that they can learn to express their feelings (angry, sad, tired, hungry) and teach older children to express their emotions verbally.
Attend to your child’s needs, including giving your child positive attention.
Let the child share their feelings and listen.
Make naptimes and mealtimes a daily routine, and stick to bedtime routines as much possible.
Be kind and forgiving towards your child and yourself!
When to ask for help
If your child’s tantrums or meltdowns are frequent, or if you have trouble coping, get professional help by speaking to your child’s doctor or a mental health professional.
1. ADDitude. (2022). ADHD Coping Strategies You Haven’t Tried Yet. ADDitude [Online]. Accessed on 18 July 2022. Available from https://www.additudemag.com/dealing-with-adhd-80-coping-strategies/ [ADD3]
2. Allen, S. (2022). “Our Home Can’t Withstand All of These Emotional ADHD Explosions!”. ADDitude [Online]. Accessed on 18 July 2022. Available from https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-control-emotions-parent/ [ADD2]
3. Miller, C. (n.d.). ADHD and Behavior Problems. Child Mind Institute [Online]. Accessed on18 July 2022. Available from https://childmind.org/article/adhd-behavior-problems/ [CMI]
4. Mofokeng, M., & van der Wath, A. E. (2017). Challenges experienced by parents living with a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Journal of Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 29(2), 137–145. https://doi.org/10.2989/17280583.2017.1364253 [MH]
5. Raylpole, C. (2021). Is It a Typical Tantrum or a Sign of ADHD?. Healthline [Online]. Accessed on 18 July 2022. Available from https://www.healthline.com/health/adhd/tantrums-adhd [HL]
6. Sisterhen, L. L. & Wy, P.A. (2021). Temper Tantrums. In: StatPearls [Online]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. 2022 Jan-. Accessed on 20 July 2022. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK544286/ [NIH]
7. Tartakovsky, M. & Ward, C. (2021). ADHD & Kids: 9 Tips to Soothe Tantrums. Psych Central [Online]. Accessed on 22 July 2022. Available from https://psychcentral.com/childhood-adhd/adhd-kids-9-tips-to-tame-tantrums#9-tips [PC]