If your child has ADHD and also goes through frequent episodes of anger, you may not think the two could be related. But temper flare-ups are common with ADHD. These episodes aren’t just unpleasant—they can have lingering consequences.
Kids with ADHD often find themselves in stressful situations created by their attention issues. They may be highly sensitive, but they may also have a hard time expressing their emotions. So when they have an angry outburst they may feel bad about it long after you’ve moved on.
Here are some reasons why your child with ADHD might be struggling with anger, and how you can help her handle this difficult emotion.
ADHD and Stress Buildup
Many kids with ADHD have negative experiences during the school day that parents don’t hear about. Imagine a day that goes like this:
Your child arrives at school without her homework and the teacher wants to know why. Later, she can’t remember the directions for her worksheet, so she can’t complete it. At lunch, she gets teased by some kids she doesn’t know. And during the last period of the day, she gets called out for distracting a classmate.
Now she’s come home and faces more tasks, which means more things that might go wrong. She’s already had a stressful day, but you don’t know that. You send her to make the bed she forgot to make that morning. Instead of taking it in stride, she becomes overwhelmed and erupts in anger.
ADHD and Impulsivity or Self-Control Issues
Impulsivity is a hallmark symptom of ADHD. It can cause kids to blurt things out or speak without thinking. And that’s without feeling upset!
Mix impulsivity with anger, and you often get an explosion. Where other kids might quietly fume, your child might slam a door or kick the furniture. She’s just not able to contain her intense feelings.
Keeping your temper involves a few critical steps that can be hard for some kids with ADHD. First, you have to take hold of your emotions. Next you have to pause long enough to think. Then you have to reflect on your options and other ways you might handle yourself.
That type of self-control involves executive function. Trouble with executive functioning and ADHD often go hand in hand.
ADHD and Acting Without Empathy
Empathy is more than just caring about others. It’s about taking their needs into consideration.
Kids who don’t struggle with self-control or social skills might stop to think about how their anger affects other people. They might use that insight to keep their anger in check, or to stop an outburst after it’s started.
Kids with ADHD aren’t always able to use empathy as a way to regulate their behavior. That doesn’t mean they’re inconsiderate or rude, however. It also doesn’t mean they don’t feel bad about losing their temper.
In fact, once they calm down and take a moment to reflect, kids with ADHD often feel terrible about how they made others feel. These negative feelings can build up and have an impact on their self-esteem.
ADHD and Anxiety, Depression or Other Mental Health Issues
ADHD and anxiety often occur together. Feeling anxious can fuel flashes of anger. Kids who are worried and anxious about something are already emotional and on edge. And it doesn’t take much to tip over to anger.
Kids with ADHD often have a hard time with emotions in general. They tend to get stuck in their feelings. So if a situation made them nervous a week ago, they may still be carrying it around with them. And they may be worried well in advance of something that’s happening in the future.
ADHD is linked to other mental health issues besides anxiety that can also drive angry reactions. These include oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and depression. It’s important to talk to your child’s doctor about potential mental health problems.
ADHD and Learning Issues
Kids with ADHD may also have undiagnosed learning issues. That can make school even more difficult and frustrating, which can lead to frequent angry episodes. Talk to your child’s doctor or teacher if you’re concerned your child might have a learning issue. You can also consider getting an evaluation through your school or through a private evaluator.
Problems With ADHD Medication
ADHD medication can be very effective in helping some kids with impulsivity. It can help kids become less irritable and better able to manage their emotions. Medication doesn’t help all kids, however. And sometimes it can cause them to be more irritable.
If that happens, it’s important to tell your child’s prescriber. ADHD medication often needs to be fine-tuned for it to work properly.
How You Can Help
Sometimes the hardest part about handling your child’s anger issues is staying calm yourself. Giving her tools to recognize and manage her anger, however, can give you both more control over situations. Here are some strategies to try before, during and after an angry outburst.
- Notice the triggers. Does your child have a shorter fuse at a certain time of day, or after a certain activity? Observe her behavior and take notes. Knowing what sets her off can help you anticipate problems and talk it over with her in advance. She could be hungry or tired, for instance. Helping her to recognize these basic needs is an important first step.
- Explain what you see. In the heat of the moment, kids with ADHD may not even be aware of how they’re coming across. You can help your child identify her emotions by calmly saying things like “You look really angry” or “You’re raising your voice at me.”
- Show empathy to build empathy. Showing your child that you understand her can help her get better at considering your point of view. You can say something like, “You’re not a morning person, and you can be grouchy when you wake up. I can see you’re feeling frustrated. Let’s talk about this after you’ve had some breakfast.”
- Don’t engage. When your child is acting out in anger, try not to show any interest. As long as she’s safe, you can say, “This situation is getting out of control. Let’s calm things down by going into separate rooms. We can get back together again in a few minutes.” This can stop her anger (and yours) from escalating. It also gives her a way to save face and start again without the anger.
- Talk about angry episodes later on. Some kids with ADHD can have a hard time being reflective in the moment. It can help to give your child some time to think about what happened before you talk about it.
Helping your child understand and manage her anger doesn’t just make a difference in your home life. It can also boost your child’s self-esteem and help her find more success at school and with friends. If she still has issues with anger, or if you see signs of an anxiety problem, it’s a good idea to tell her doctor. He might recommend treatment options like therapy or medication.