I’m sure you have picked up your kid from school and the car door barely closes before they are snapping at you or even break down crying. After holding it together all day trying to be still, they know you are the person who has to love them no matter how they act.
Even on a good day, the transitions from school to home and the evening of homework that they aren’t sure how to handle stretching ahead can cause enough stress to set your child off. And while you want them to be comfortable at home, the outbursts make your already strained relationship more challenging.
When I was in school, I couldn’t hide my academic failures, but I could hide my feelings. By the time I got home, I was agitated from suppressing my anger and embarrassment from being called out in class.
When my parents would go to teacher conferences, they were always mystified when the teachers told them how sweet I was. It wasn’t a side of me they saw very often.ADHD kids are about 3 years behind other kids their age in terms of maturity. Parents have to consider that even when their kid is making an effort, he or she hasn’t developed the same level of control as his peers. It’s an unfair comparison.
Anger was my primary way of communicating that something was wrong. What I thought was an SOS to my family was inflammatory to everyone else. I felt unheard. Once I started an argument, I felt like I had to commit to it. I never apologized because while I knew my outbursts were inappropriate, I never felt like my behavior was entirely my fault. Wasn’t I making it clear that I needed help?
What everyone else saw me doing did not match the situation I saw going on. I always knew I was going to be blamed. Everyone expected me to be the bad kid. By then, the damage is done, and hackles are raised beyond a point of reasonable discussion.
What I have found to be consistent across ADHD kids is that they often don’t remember the details of what happened in a heated moment, or they remember it differently. After they see red, their impulses escalate to the point they are saying things they know they shouldn’t. But they don’t know how to break the cycle.
Have you ever had a moment when you snapped on someone over something minimal? They were confused as to why you were so mad at them. The reality is that you may not have been angry at them but that one little thing they said caused you to snap.
This happened to me recently. This past January, I had my sweet baby boy. Come February, I noticed I was constantly snapping at my husband over the tiniest things that didn’t even matter. He could have said, “that blue sky is beautiful,” and I would have started an argument about how it was gray.
This went on for too long. Finally, he brought it to my attention, and I lost it. I did all the things you’re not supposed to do. I told him I kept snapping at him because he isn’t doing anything to help with the house or the kids, and I was sick of it.
That wasn’t true and we both knew it. He had been going above and beyond. However, he wasn’t seeing what was going on in my head. The overwhelm that was taking over. I was stressed because I had a fussy 1-month-old and a 14-month-old who had just learned to walk and was getting into EVERYTHING. They both wanted mom ALL. THE. TIME. I was trying to find my new balance between running Focus Forward, being a mom, and being a wife. I was struggling with my 1-month postpartum body. The house was a mess, babies were crying, I was running on little sleep, all the things were going on.
Despite my snapping at my husband, I wasn’t mad at him, but I unintentionally took it out on him. This happened because I couldn’t slow my brain down and see what was going on. I was stressed trying to balance my babies and business, the messy house was overwhelming me, and I was sad and struggling with my postpartum body. None of these emotions are anger. However, anger is the only way I know how to get my feelings out when I am overwhelmed.
In reading this, I am sure you can relate on some level. We have all been there. The difference is that as an adult, we have the skills to reflect and determine what is actually going on that caused us to snap.
Kids don’t have that skill, especially those with ADHD. While they may not be trying to balance work, babies, and home, they are trying to balance many other things. Their struggles in school, constantly comparing themselves to their peers, fights at home, being misunderstood, feeling like they are stupid, and the list could go on. Every time I had an angry outburst as a kid, there was always something more going on. I just did not have the tools to express that in any other form than anger. I was ALWAYS grounded and our house felt like ground zero for WWIII.
Reflecting back, I needed someone who could help me slow down and find the words to describe what was causing me to be so angry. Sometimes, that person could be my dad, but usually my parents were the last people I wanted to talk to. I often confided in my babysitter or my aunt. I just needed to know that someone was listening with no judgment. That is why I created Focus Forward and why I am so passionate about helping families get through WWIII. If I would have not only had someone who listened but also helped me figure out how to manage the chaos, life at home would have been more peaceful growing up.
Many people do not connect being emotional with ADHD. They focus instead on addressing the academic part. While they may recognize that their child flies off the handle sometimes, they tend to think of that as personality or temper, not related to executive function.
Emotional outbursts are harder to manage than something tangible like organization. You can see when your schoolwork is becoming unorganized, but it takes some training in self-awareness to recognize when you are bubbling over with strong emotions or impulses.
When ADHD emotions are extremely high or low, we have more trouble controlling our impulses. We also can become easily emotional over what seems to be small to others. In an argument, we get frustrated when we can’t verbalize our feelings. Emotions often turn into anger or sadness. If we try to back down or pause during escalation and the other person uses that opening to fight back, we are likely to explode. Expressing our feelings and vocalizing what is going through our head is a skill that we don’t naturally have.
On the flip side, when we are really happy or excited about something, we can become uncontrollably hyperactive and struggle to control our impulses.In 5th grade, my family took our first plane ride to Disney World for fall break. I remember being up all night with excitement over this trip. I also remember getting in trouble because I was extremely hyper and unable to control myself.
Those of us with ADHD struggle to control our impulses. These impulses can range from blurting something out to screaming, yelling, and throwing things. Impulses become harder to control the more extreme our emotions become. That being said, you don‘t have to be emotional to be impulsive.
Some kids struggle to control their impulses regardless of the environment they are in—at home, school, out with friends or family—it doesn’t matter. Others can hold it in when absolutely necessary, like at school, but when they get home, the wheels come off.
This is a lifelong journey for us, and you can help us better manage our actions. While we have to face consequences for hitting siblings and throwing tantrums, telling your child to “just stop” is not going to help. Impulses are like an addiction and not something your child can just turn off. It was very helpful to me when I became more self-aware and was able to explain to those close to me, like my mom and my husband, that sometimes I need their help to calm down. Yes, this is humbling for the asker and requires a big dose of control from the other side. Why does the loved one have to be the one to back down? Because I have to have time to put the monster away. I need to relive what I’ve said and decode what happened. I have to process what the next correct thing is to say.
I suggest you and your child have a code word, or an action that requires the other person back off temporarily until your kid can calm down. If you can’t leave the room, silence is often enough to stop the train. I clench my fists by my side, or curl up in a ball if I’m in my room. When I was in college, I would drive in circles on this one bypass near my school to calm my mind before I could face my roommates.
Revisiting what happened when things were headed off the rails in a later conversation is not only appropriate but instrumental in making progress. It always helped me as a kid when my dad would come up to my room later and ask what just happened. Include your kid in the conversation. Say, this was not acceptable behavior, but what were you trying to get across? What’s a different way we could do this next time?
The stakes are high for your child socially. I have been surprised how strong impulses and emotions have carried through to adulthood for me.
Everytime I have lost control as an adult, I suffer a remorse hangover. When I went to college, my family wasn’t there at the end of the day. The friends I was rooming with became my outlet, which caused a lot of drama and damaged friendships.
I had a hard time understanding I was the problem and admitting that I couldn’t control my emotions. It’s a very isolating feeling. The sooner you work with your child to understand what is happening, the better they can sense and begin to control situations that are getting out of hand.
I want to talk about two types of transitions: mental transitions and life transitions. Using routines to move your kiddo from one task to another are essential in making transitions go more smoothly. A lack of routine lead to daily changes that fall into the mental transition category.
Bigger changes (moving to a new town, transitioning from middle school to high school, starting a new job, or even having a baby) make up the life transition category.
When someone thinks about transition, they typically think about those big life changes. But the little everyday transitions cause repeat struggles for the ADHD mind.
My favorite example for mental transition is to imagine a small child heading out for ice cream. The family gets in the car, and everyone is really looking forward to this outing. The kid knows exactly what she wants to order. When you pull into the parking lot, it turns out the shop is out of that flavor or maybe they are even closed. A major meltdown ensues! Your kid is so let down. She cannot wrap her head around a reasonable alternative.
To avoid this scenario, I coach my families to start a discussion in the car on the way there: “What flavor are you going to get? Strawberry! That’s a great choice. Oh! What if they don’t have strawberry—then what would you choose? If Baskin Robbins is closed, where should we go, Dairy Queen or the Ice House?” Letting them think through other possibilities will lessen the blow if plan A doesn’t pan out. In the same way, talking through the options can mitigate other conflicts at your house. Maybe your high schooler has an after-school routine but has decided on this particular Thursday evening, he’s going to go swimming, write a paper, eat dinner and watch a movie. Of course, he’s saving the paper for last.
Instead of pointing out that this is impossible, start with, “How are you going to get this all done?” or “How long did it take last time you wrote a paper? Do you think this assignment is bigger or smaller than last time?” Let them reason their way through it.
Making them a part of the solution is more likely to get results than just telling them their plan is not going to work. Your student does not realize that there is too little time for all of his plans without someone helping him connect the dots.
Not surprisingly, those of us with ADHD struggle with big changes in our lives too. Whether starting a first job or getting married, we can’t proactively plan the necessary steps to make a smooth transformation when we don’t know what to expect. While it’s normal for anyone to be anxious about big life changes, a brain with normal executive function can go with the flow and adapt more easily. By the time we realize we need help, we are already in a hole.
When I went to college, I knew I was signing up for 16 hours of coursework. But I had no idea what that meant for how to manage my time. 16 hours didn’t sound like a lot, but I didn’t have the headspace to plan for homework time, travel time to and from class, volleyball practice, when I was going to eat my meals, etc.
I spent the summer between high school and college dealing with a lot of anger from the growing pressure of the new semester drawing closer. But I didn’t know who could help or what I could do about it.
Even moving from middle to high school, ADHD kids feel like they have lost control when they are given more freedom with their time along with more responsibilities. We tend to freeze in the face of uncertainty. Sometimes just presenting them with a first step is enough to get them moving. Let’s go get school supplies. Then lead them into, “what should we do with all these supplies?” Once school is in session, your kid needs reminders to keep going when they stall. Your student needs to build in breaks throughout the day (again, not obvious to us), with a plan to return to work so they don’t get lost in that free time.
Without a clear understanding of how to manage my ADHD as a college freshman, it took me until 2nd semester to adapt to my new routine. By then, it was almost summertime. This was so frustrating because I knew everything would change again the next school year.
Now that we have a better understanding of why we can get so angry, what do we do about it? That the after-the-tantrum-talk is an important part of helping your child improve, the better option is to stop it in its tracks. A code word or action can be a cue to step away. The code word has the magic of not embarrassing the kid and not calling them out.
When my brother was little, he was a chatterbox. He would annoy everyone with his constant babble, and he knew this was a problem. He wanted to stop because he saw how it took a toll on his social interactions. We developed the word “cheeseburger” as a warning that he was crossing into that territory.
If we were in a social situation with another family and he was talking too much, one of us could say, “hey, what do you think about cheeseburgers for dinner tomorrow?” and he would get the message to cool it. We didn’t have to say, “shut up, you are annoying everyone!” People outside of our family would be oblivious to what was going on, but it was a gentle way to remind him to check himself.
In the same way, a code word or action might be used in your household to say, this is the point where we need to walk away. Or the kid may use it to signal that they recognize they are about to lose control and everyone needs to back off for now until the emotions can be addressed with cooler heads.
Again, this is not an out for your kid’s bad behavior. The idea is that with a code word, your child can start to recognize when impulses and emotions are growing too big, and mitigate an explosion. It allows your kiddo to cry uncle before he says something he will regret, or even right after. It allows you to point out a line has been crossed, in a non-confrontational way before it gets out of hand.
The funnier your phrase is, the better. I have a teenage student and his family uses the phrase “banana hammock”. While this is not appropriate for younger kids, his family cannot keep a straight face when someone says this phrase, and it immediately lightens the mood. It works for them.
For some families, the code word doesn’t work. There is too much tension and more support is needed, Bringing in a third party is sometimes necessary. By the time I reached high school, my family was done with me, and I was not exactly receptive to their suggestions. Including a coach, counselor, or therapist in the mix is a great way to diffuse tensions and give your kid someone in their corner.
Sometimes parents are annoyed that when I’m coaching their kiddo, I am giving the kids the same guidance they have been screaming at their kid for years. The difference is it’s coming from someone without that emotionally-charged, close relationship with them. When a pattern is built at home, kids start to feel like parents hate them. Of course this is not true, but it’s easier for them to work with someone from the outside.