Kids with ADHD (also known as ADD) often struggle with managing their emotions. For some, that can mean mood swings that leave their parents, teachers and friends wondering what caused such a swift change in attitude and behavior.
It may not take much, however, to set the pendulum in motion. Here’s an example of an ADHD mood swing. A child who’s been happily playing outside comes in for lunch. As he sits down, he accidentally spills his milk. In that instant, he becomes angry and frustrated, and his mood totally changes.
He spends the afternoon indoors, being grumpy and difficult. Or not. It’s also possible that within 10 minutes, he’s in good spirits again and back outside having fun.
Learn why some kids with ADHD have frequent mood swings, and how you can help your child stay on a more even keel.
ADHD and Intense Emotions
All kids are moody at times and sometimes lose their cool. That’s especially true for tweens and teens. But most are able to get control over their feelings fairly easily and quickly.
When they accidentally spill milk or are reminded to turn off a video game and do their homework, they might be angry for a minute, but not for an hour or more. It certainly shouldn’t ruin their day.
But when reactions to minor frustrations are excessive, there’s often something else going on. The reaction may be a spillover from other concerns that aren’t always obvious.
Kids with ADHD tend to feel anger, anxiety, frustration or disappointment more intensely than their peers. (The same can be true of positive emotions.)
At the same time, they typically have trouble managing their emotions and reactions. That makes it hard for them to keep a reasonable perspective. Instead, they feel like a minor frustration is a major problem.
Here’s an example. A child has scored two goals during his soccer game and is feeling great about his performance. Then he misses a goal, and his pride instantly turns to shame. He’s still upset even after the game ends. It doesn’t matter how well he did overall. One setback clouds the whole experience.
Then, one of his teammates congratulates him on playing a great game. This may lift his mood. Or it may make him more frustrated because he assumes that his teammate was being insincere and sarcastic.
How to Help With ADHD Mood Swings
Mood swings can be difficult for the whole family to deal with. But there are things you can do to help your child recognize and regulate his emotions.
Don’t overreact to flare-ups. If his mood swing starts with an outburst, try not to react too quickly or intensely in the moment. If you’re highly emotional, it may make it even harder for him to gain control. Plus, you’re not likely to be heard at that point. It may be helpful for him to vent his frustrations for a bit, so long as his venting isn’t extreme.
Reflect what you see. When your child’s negative mood doesn’t quickly pass, it may help to mention that he seems unsettled or frustrated or annoyed. He may not even realize he’s had an abrupt change in mood, or even be able to identify what he’s feeling. Noticing it in a calm, uncritical way may help him to open some constructive conversation.
You can say something like, “It looks like you’ve become angry or annoyed about something. You were in such a good mood earlier.” Being matter of fact about it helps keep the conversation from becoming overly emotional.
Ask what’s going on, and empathize. It’s important to show empathy to your child and tell him it’s okay to feel the way he’s feeling. At the same time, you can show him that talking about what’s bothering him allows him to get it out and move on before his negative feelings grow.
You can say something like, “Did something happen to make you become so down on yourself? If he tells you, show him empathy by saying, “That would make me feel embarrassed, too.” You can even swap stories about when similar things happened to you.
Just know that your child may not be ready to talk about it, and it’s important to respect that. Give him room to back away from it for a while if he needs to.
Share your feelings about his behavior. You may worry about making him feel guilty or ashamed. But it’s important for your child to know how his moods affect other people—including you. You can say something like, “I’m feeling irritated by how you’re behaving. Did something happen that’s making you feel mad?”
You might find that he opens up about what’s bothering him. And you can use that first to empathize, and then to explain that while you’re happy to help him work through it, you’re not willing to be treated with disrespect.
Look into medication side effects. If your child is on ADHD medication, it’s possible that the medication may be playing a role in his mood swings. That’s especially true if those swings keep happening at about the same time day after day.
Stimulant medications wear off in the late afternoon or early evening. Sometimes that can cause a few hours of moodiness. Parents might see their child feeling overly sad or irritable, for instance.
If you see a pattern of moodiness in your child over many days, you may want to mention this to the prescriber. Some minor fine-tuning of the dose, timing or type of medication might correct the problem.
Be Aware of Mental Health Issues
Kids with ADHD are at higher risk for anxiety and depression. Either one of those issues can cause mood changes. If a negative mood persists for longer than a week or two, it’s important to talk with your child’s doctor or with a mental health professional. Explore signs of anxiety and depression in kids.
The more information you have, the better able you’ll be to help your child manage his mood swings. Learn how behavior therapy can help some kids with ADHD. Discover why many kids with ADHD struggle with aggression. Try a unique simulation to see what your child may experience. And find out what to do if you’re concerned your child has ADHD.