ADHD and Anger: What You Need to Know

By The Understood Team
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At a Glance

  • ADHD and anger often go hand in hand.

  • Trouble with self-control and expressing emotions can lead to outbursts.

  • Noticing your child’s triggers is a good first step to helping manage anger.

When kids with ADHD get really angry, you may not think the two are related. But temper flare-ups are common with ADHD.

Kids with ADHD often find themselves in stressful situations. They can 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 kids with ADHD might struggle with anger, and how you can help.

ADHD and Stress Buildup

Many kids with ADHD have negative experiences during the school day that their families don’t hear about. Imagine a day that goes like this:

Your child arrives at school without the homework that was due, and the teacher wants to know why. Later, your child can’t remember the directions for the worksheet, so it just doesn’t get done. At lunch, your child gets teased by some kids, and later gets called out for distracting a classmate.

Now it’s time to go home and face more tasks, which means more things that might go wrong. It’s already been a stressful day, but you don’t know that. So you send your child to make the bed that wasn’t made that morning, which causes an already-overwhelmed kid to erupt in anger.

ADHD and Trouble With Self-Control

Impulsivity is one of the main signs 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. While other kids might quietly fume, kids with ADHD might slam a door or kick the furniture. They have a hard time containing their intense feelings.

Keeping your temper involves a few 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 to handle yourself.

That type of self-control involves skills called executive functions. Trouble with these skills goes hand in hand with ADHD. Watch as an expert explains more:

Having trouble with self-control can also make it hard to be empathetic. Empathy is more than just caring about others. It’s about taking their needs into consideration.

Kids who don’t struggle with self-control 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.

But kids with ADHD have a harder time hitting the brakes. That doesn’t mean they’re inconsiderate or rude, though. 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 impact their self-esteem.

ADHD and Co-Occurring Difficulties

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 can 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.

Kids with ADHD may also have undiagnosed learning differences. That can make school even more difficult and frustrating, which can lead to frequent angry episodes. Read what an expert says about keeping an eye on learning differences when your child has ADHD.

Problems With ADHD Medication

ADHD medication can be very effective in helping some kids with impulsivity. It can help kids be less irritable and better able to manage their emotions. Medication doesn’t help all kids, though. 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 your child the tools to recognize and manage anger can give both of you 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? Knowing what sets your child off can help you anticipate problems and talk it over in advance. Triggers could be as simple as being hungry or tired, for instance. Helping 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 be aware of how they’re coming across. You can help your child identify emotions by calmly saying things like “You look really angry” or “You’re raising your voice at me.”

  • Show empathy to build empathy. What goes around comes around. Showing that you understand your child can help your child try to better understand you, too. 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 acts out in anger, try not to show any interest. As long as everyone is 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 your child’s anger (and yours) from escalating. It also gives your child a way to save face and start again without the anger.

  • Talk about angry episodes later on. Some kids with ADHD have a hard time being reflective in the moment. It helps to give your child some time to think about what happened before you talk about it.

Helping kids with ADHD understand and manage anger doesn’t just make a difference in home life. It can also boost kids’ self-esteem and help them build better relationships.

If your child seems anxious or frustrated in addition to being angry, use an anxiety log or frustration log to keep track of what you’re seeing. Finding patterns in your child’s behavior can help you find the right solutions.

Key Takeaways

  • When kids with ADHD lose their temper, they often feel terrible about it afterward.

  • Calmly saying things like “You look really angry” can help kids learn to recognize and manage anger.

  • Give your child time to calm down and think about an angry outburst before talking about it.

About the Author

About the Author

The Understood Team 

is made up of passionate writers, editors, and community moderators. Many of them learn and think differently, or have kids who do.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Ellen Braaten, PhD 

is the director of LEAP and codirector of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, both at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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