ADHD and Mood Swings: What You Need to Know

By The Understood Team
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At a Glance

  • Kids with ADHD often feel emotions more intensely than other kids.

  • Trouble managing emotions can lead to moodiness and mood swings.

  • There are ways to help kids with ADHD recognize and cope with their emotions.

Kids with ADHD (also known as ADD) often have trouble managing their emotions. For some, that can mean mood swings that leave their families, teachers, and friends wondering what caused such a quick change in attitude and behavior.

It may not take much 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 drink. He instantly 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 gain control over their feelings fairly easily and quickly. When they accidentally spill something 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 wouldn’t ruin their day.

But when minor frustrations lead to big reactions, there’s often something else going on. The reaction may be a spillover from other challenges.

Kids with ADHD tend to feel anger, anxiety, frustration, or disappointment more intensely than other kids. (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 things in perspective. Instead, they might feel like a minor frustration is a major problem.

Here’s an example. A child has scored two goals during her soccer game and is feeling great about her performance. Then she misses a goal, and her pride instantly turns to shame. She’s still upset even after the game ends. It doesn’t matter how well she did overall. One setback clouds the whole experience.

Then, one of her teammates congratulates her on playing a great game. This may lift her mood. Or it may make her more frustrated because she assumes that her teammate was being insincere and sarcastic.

How to Help With ADHD Mood Swings

When kids with ADHD have mood swings, it can be hard on the whole family. But there are things you can do to help your child manage emotions.

Don’t overreact to flare-ups. If a mood swing starts with an outburst, try not to react too quickly or intensely in the moment. If you’re very emotional, it can make it even harder for your child to gain control. Plus, your child may not be ready to hear you at that point. Let your child vent frustrations for a bit, so long as the venting isn’t extreme.

Reflect what you see. When kids’ negative moods don’t quickly go away, it can help to say out loud that they seem unsettled, frustrated, or annoyed. They may not even realize they’ve had a mood swing, or even be able to identify what they’re feeling. Noticing it in a calm, uncritical way can help kids open up to constructive conversation.

You can say something like, “It looks like you’re angry or annoyed about something. You were in such a good mood earlier.” Being matter-of-fact helps keep the conversation from becoming overly emotional.

Ask what’s going on, and empathize. It’s important to show empathy and tell kids it’s OK to feel the way they’re feeling. At the same time, you can show them that talking about what’s bothering them will help them “get it out” and move on before negative feelings grow.

You can say something like, “Did something happen to make you get so down on yourself?” If they tell you, show 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 room for your child to back away for a while.

Share your feelings about the behavior. You may worry about making your child feel guilty or ashamed. But it’s important for your child to know that mood swings 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?”

Your child might open up about what’s going on. Try to empathize and then explain that while you’re happy to help your child work through it, you’re not willing to be treated with disrespect.

Look into medication side effects. ADHD medication can play a role in 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. So if your child takes ADHD medication, you might see your child feeling overly sad or irritable.

Use an ADHD medication log to spot patterns of moodiness in your child. Talk with your child’s doctor about what you’re seeing. Some minor fine-tuning of the dose, timing, or type of medication could help.

Be Aware of Mental Health Issues

Kids with ADHD are more likely to experience anxiety or depression. Either one of those issues can cause mood changes. If a bad mood lasts longer than a week or two, it’s important to talk with your child’s doctor or with a mental health professional.

The more information you have, the better able you’ll be to help your child manage mood swings.

Key Takeaways

  • Kids with ADHD tend to feel anger, frustration, or disappointment more intensely than other kids.

  • Minor frustrations can feel like big problems—which can set off big reactions.

  • Pointing out mood swings can help kids recognize their emotions and behavior.

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

Thomas E. Brown, PhD 

is a clinical psychologist and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

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