Many people have trouble coping with death and grief. For some kids with ADHD (also known as ADD), it can be especially hard. They may have trouble managing the intense feelings and new situations that often come with grieving. And you may have to respond to behavior that’s unpredictable or inappropriate while trying to cope with your own loss.
Understanding what your child is struggling with can make it easier to step back and help him find better ways to cope and behave. Learn about the unique challenges kids with ADHD may face when dealing with death, and how to help your child through times of grief.
ADHD and Trouble Seeing the Whole Picture
Most kids with ADHD have executive functioning issues. Because of that, they can have trouble seeing beyond their immediate thoughts and experiences. They may not grasp the whole situation, or understand how other people are involved or affected.
For instance, it might not occur to them that Grandma’s death means that Mom has lost her mom, and how upsetting that might be.
Kids with ADHD may also get caught up in the details of what’s going on. They may focus on things like what type of food will be served after the service or which out-of-town relatives will be staying over for the weekend. They may come off as being insensitive, which isn’t necessarily the case.
Intense Emotions and Coping With Grief
Many kids with ADHD have a hard time managing emotions. Part of the reason for that is that they often feel emotions more intensely than other kids.
Grief is a uniquely intense emotion to begin with. And it’s often mixed with other difficult emotions such as fear, guilt, worry, anger and anxiety. Kids may not know what they’re feeling, or what they “should” be feeling, when someone dies. That alone can make them feel anxious.
While kids with ADHD may be quick to feel strong emotions, they’re often slow to move past them. They may take longer than other kids to develop the ability to gain and keep control of their feelings. So they may sob throughout a funeral service even though their siblings are holding it together.
Hyperfocus and Coping With Grief
In a grieving situation, a child might ask endless questions about how the person died, for instance. Or he may ask about one detail over and over, such as exactly where the person was when he died. There may be a million things happening around him, but he can’t stop focusing on just one thing.
Impulsivity and Coping With Grief
Impulsivity is one of the main traits of ADHD. Kids with ADHD may have trouble controlling their actions—including what they say. Kids who don’t have ADHD typically can pause for a second to consider if what they’re saying is appropriate. But kids with ADHD tend to blurt things out without thinking.
For example, a child may see his relative in the casket during a viewing and say, “That’s a stupid tie,” or “He doesn’t look anything like himself.” Even if he knows those aren’t appropriate things to say out loud, he may lack the self-control to keep them in.
He may also be impulsive in the actions he takes. For instance, perhaps in your family it’s not acceptable to reach into the coffin and touch the relative. But if he’s very curious or has an emotional desire to do it, he may not be able to stop himself.
Kids with impulsivity often get in trouble for their behavior. Then they often feel bad about what they’ve done—and just plain bad about themselves. When that happens during a situation of mourning, it can be extra painful and upsetting to them.
Trouble With Flexible Thinking and Coping With Grief
One of the executive functions kids with ADHD often struggle with is flexible thinking. They have trouble “shifting sets,” or adapting when situations change.
A death in the family is often disruptive to plans. A vacation may have to be canceled, or a trip to the zoo postponed. Kids may need to skip social events like school dances or a soccer tournament they were looking forward to.
Kids with ADHD may have a tough time adjusting to the abrupt change in plans. They may become overly angry, disappointed or anxious because what they expected to happen no longer will. Taking the time to really hear them out and explain why this change in plans needs to occur can often make this situation better.
Slow Processing Speed and Coping With Grief
Some kids with ADHD may also have slow processing speed. Instead of asking endless questions or becoming fixated on something, they may simply be having a hard time processing what’s going on.
They may not talk so quickly or easily about their feelings or the events surrounding a loss. And it may take them awhile to move through different stages of grief. Long after other family members have gotten past the death itself, these kids may seem like they’re having trouble “getting over it.” But in fact, they may not have even started the process.
How to Help Your Child With ADHD Cope With Grief
In grieving situations, you may have your own tough emotions to deal with. You may also be pulled in many directions, taking care of things and people. Handling your child’s intense emotions and impulsive behavior can be harder than usual at times like this.
Here are some ways you can help him gain self-control and cope with death and grief.
Observe his responses and take cues from them.Your child may not be aware of his own feelings and behaviors. Recognizing how he’s responding to situations is key to helping him change his behavior. You might find that your child becomes fixated on the person who died or on the death itself, for instance. You can point out his fixation while still respecting his feelings. You might say, “I’ve noticed that you’ve been talking a lot about what happened. Sometimes when important things happen in our life, it’s hard to stop thinking about them. But that can be frustrating. What else could we do right now instead?”
Let him know what to expect.During situations involving death, plans can come together or change quickly. But the more advance warning and explanation you can give your child, the better prepared he’ll be to cope. Talk about the events that are going to take place, in as much detail as possible. The events surrounding a death are probably unfamiliar to your child. He may not know how he’s expected to behave unless you tell him. It can also help to bring him into the process by asking, “Do you think you’ll have a hard time handling any of this?” That gives him a chance to come up with coping strategies, either on his own or with your help.
Speak with empathy, and try not to judge.It’s important to recognize that your child is going through a grieving process, even if it’s very different from yours. Try to acknowledge his feelings when you speak to him about his behavior. Doing that can help you keep control of your own responses, and show him that you understand and support him. You might say, “I know you’re worried about how this may affect family activities from now on. I’m thinking about it, too. But this isn’t the right time to talk about the plans we made for the holidays. We’ll figure it out when things settle down.” Explore more ways to show empathy to kids.
Create safe places for your child to talk.You don’t want your child to speak without thinking at the wrong time or place. But you don’t want him to have to hold everything in, either. He should know he has other people he can turn to besides you. Talk to his teacher about what’s been happening so she can reach out to your child and offer her support. Tell your child who he can talk to at school about emotional issues. And consider asking someone who’s close to your child but not directly involved to act as a support person for him.
Notice and reward positive behavior.You may be facing a lot of other demands and distractions at this time. But it’s important to catch your child behaving in a positive way. He may surprise you by having better self-control than usual. If you’re having a conversation with another adult, and he doesn’t interrupt, tell him how much you appreciate that. Kids with ADHD can often show a lot of empathy, which is a great life skill. If you see that your child took a plate of food to an elderly family member, let him know that you noticed. You might say something like, “I saw that you offered to bring Aunt Jane some dessert so she didn’t have to get up. That was really thoughtful of you.”
Maintain schedules and routines as well as you can.It’s not always possible to stick to everyday routines when there’s been a death or grave illness. But structure is key to helping kids with ADHD stay on track. It can also reduce stress. Be especially mindful of medication times. You may be too tied up with other responsibilities to make sure he’s taking his ADHD medication when he needs to. If that’s the case, see if a family member or friend could be in charge of that.
It’s natural for kids to experience some anxiety or sadness when dealing with death and grief. But kids with ADHD are at greater risk of having clinical anxiety and depression. Learn about the signs of anxiety in younger kids and tweens and teens so you can get your child help if he needs it. Also learn about behavior changes that could signal depression in kids.