All kids can lose control of their emotions if they’re feeling angry, hurt, frustrated or sad. But when some kids with ADHD (also known as ADD) get upset, their negative feelings tend to be stronger and last for a longer period of time. Some may respond to those strong feelings by becoming physically aggressive.
If you have a child with ADHD who tends to lash out physically, you may wonder whether his aggressiveness is related to his ADHD. It may well be. That’s because kids with ADHD tend to have trouble managing their emotions.
At the same time, it’s important to know that ADHD may not be the reason for your child’s aggressiveness. He could have other issues that are contributing to his aggressive behavior. That possibility should be explored.
Here are some of the reasons why kids with ADHD may be physically aggressive, and how you can help.
The Impulsivity-Aggression Connection
Some, but not all, kids with ADHD have frequent difficulty controlling their impulses. A first grader with ADHD who wants a toy that another child is playing with might grab it or hit the child to get it instead of waiting his turn. His impulsivity stops him from being able to think through his actions. All he can think about is what he wants right now.
Another problem is that kids with ADHD can get “stuck” in a negative space and have a hard time moving on. Let’s say a child pushes a classmate in line because he believes it’s his turn to be first. The teacher disciplines him by sending him to the back of the line.
A child without ADHD may be able to accept that consequence, even though he thinks it’s unfair. But once a child with ADHD gets it in his head that he’s been wronged, he may have trouble shifting his thoughts. Instead he may escalate the situation by throwing his backpack on the floor or kicking another child. He’ll continue to engage in negative behavior even though it’s not helping.
After acting out, he may be genuinely sorry for hurting someone or breaking the rules. But that may not keep him from reacting the same way next time.
Many kids with ADHD are also less likely to learn from their mistakes. Their impulsivity may make it hard for them to think about consequences. It may also prevent them from remembering that lashing out doesn’t work.
As kids with ADHD get older, they usually become less impulsive. And they become less physically aggressive as a result. Still, a sixth grader with ADHD may stick out his foot on the bus to trip a child he’s mad at. And a high-schooler with ADHD may fire off a mean tweet without thinking through how it will make the recipient feel.
How Trouble Managing Emotions Can Lead to Aggression
Difficulty managing emotions can contribute to aggressive behavior. A child with ADHD may cry more easily or become angry more quickly than a child without ADHD.
One common problem among kids with ADHD is that it can be hard for them to calm themselves down. They often don’t have the self-soothing skills that other kids their age might develop.
They can get so overwhelmed with emotion that they react to a relatively small problem as though it’s a very big problem. They may need help in learning how to recognize which problems are small and which ones really are significant.
These challenges can also make it hard for kids to keep their frustrations in perspective—and in check. And that can lead them to lash out.
Your child may become frustrated because he doesn’t know how to do his math homework or can’t find his favorite T-shirt. Even those small things can lead him to yell at you, tear up the math assignment or hit his sister for saying the wrong thing.
Medication Issues and Aggression
Some kids who are on ADHD stimulant medication become edgy and irritable. Typically, that happens as the medication wears off. This is called “rebound” and can last for a few minutes or a couple of hours. It may happen at the same time each day.
For a small number of kids, the wrong medication might lead to general feelings of irritability and aggression throughout the day.
It’s important to discuss all these scenarios with the prescriber so he can adjust the medicine as needed.
Other Possible Factors
Kids with ADHD sometimes lash out when something stressful is happening in their lives. Perhaps they’re being bullied at school. Or maybe there are family problems at home. It’s also possible they may not be getting enough sleep.
Kids with ADHD often have other conditions that can contribute to aggressive behavior. Common ones include oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety and depression.
How You Can Help
Try to talk with your child calmly when he’s not frustrated. See if he’ll share why he’s often upset and if there are things that might help him feel better. If that doesn’t work, you might want to talk to your child’s teacher to see if the problems are noticeable at school.
It’s helpful to know the types of situations that might cause your child to act aggressively. This can help you prepare in advance for how to help your child problem-solve certain situations that can agitate him.
Using rewards and consequences may help. But if your efforts aren’t working, you may want to look into counseling or behavior therapy.
You may also want to ask your pediatrician for suggestions if the aggression is ongoing. If you suspect there may be a co-occurring issue besides ADHD, it’s important to have your child evaluated.
Find out what to do if you suspect bullying at school. Get tips on what not to say to your child about ADHD, and ways to respond when your child is frustrated. And if your child keeps lashing out, and it’s scaring you, read advice from experts at the Child Mind Institute, an Understood founding partner.