Blog Post | Support Your Child Through ADHD Meltdowns

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Supporting Your Child Through An ADHD Meltdown, by Griffin Rouse

Understanding and Dealing with ADHD Meltdowns

If you are the parent of an ADHD child, it's likely you’ve experienced a notorious ADHD meltdown. A simple request for your child to start or complete their homework, for instance, devolves into a show-stopping total loss of control.  Parents often describe these moments as disruptive, scary, and traumatizing for other members of the family. 

It’s important to know that meltdowns are rarely caused by a single event;  they are typically brought about by a slow and steady building of stress, tension, anxiety, isolation, or any number of other internalized negative emotions or experiences.

Think of how you feel at the end of a very long flight when it’s finally time to get up and off the plane and stretch your legs. Now imagine the pilot tells you sorry, but now you need to sit back down for another 3 hours while they solve some mechanical issue. That is how your child feels after a long day of trying to control their emotions, only to be confronted with just one more stressor – it’s the last straw that triggers an overflow of anger and disappointment.

Meltdowns can sometimes be avoided, but when they cannot, there are some techniques you and your child can use to help make those meltdown moments more bearable for everyone involved.

First, Understand Meltdowns are Okay. You’re not failing as a parent. Your child is not a “bad kid.” And, most importantly, you’re not alone in dealing with this. Meltdowns are a fact of life for a lot of ADHD children and their families. They will happen.

This is primarily because ADHD children (and adults) experience emotions more intensely and for longer periods of time due to unregulated and oftentimes deficient levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and/or serotonin. ADHD children also have little to no impulse control as this part of the brain is delayed in its development, and impaired by the lack of dopamine mentioned above. Combine these two realities and you end up with a perfect storm – an irrational loss of control that neither you nor your child can stop once it starts.  Your child is likely trying very hard to regain control, and their inability to do so isn’t their fault.

A meltdown is usually the culmination of a series of events that chip away at your child’s self-esteem and impulse control. From the outside, it may look like a small, inconsequential event triggered a meltdown, but it is more complex than that. Know that your child is not “acting out” or “overreacting” and try to put yourself in their shoes when a meltdown is happening.

Working Through Meltdowns With Your Child

You may not be able to prevent a meltdown once it begins, but there are some things you can do to make the situation easier on everyone in the family, especially your ADHD child.

Remember that though your child is not rational at this time, they are picking up on your cues. Your behavior and reactions during a meltdown will have an impact on the duration and severity, as well as on how your child feels afterward about their behavior. In these moments, nothing is more important than empathy.

You can help your child by understanding their vulnerability and asking questions.

Try asking your child something like, “can you tell me why you’re upset” Listen to their responses, and follow up with statements of empathy:

  • “That sounds really difficult. I think I’d be pretty upset if I were in that situation. How do you think I might be able to help you?”
  • “That must be really scary. What do you think would be the best way to move forward?”
  • “That sounds super frustrating. I’m sorry this is the way things are going for you. I know it stinks.”

After a meltdown

An ADHD child knows that meltdowns are not okay, which means they will feel ashamed once the meltdown passes. It is important to remind your child that they are loved and meltdowns are okay. This will help prevent significant negative impacts on your child’s self-esteem.

Meltdowns affect everyone who experiences them.  This includes the individual melting down, the parent(s) trying to mitigate or help control the meltdown, as well as the siblings witnessing the storm in full force. Work together as a family to understand and communicate.

Stopping a Meltdown Before it Starts

If you intervene early enough, you can sometimes get ahead of the meltdown. You and your child can do this by working together to develop strategies ahead of time to prepare. Think about how you have emergency plans with your kids for things like a house fire or a stranger talking to them, and treat meltdowns the same way. Here are some ways you and your child can work together on strategies:

Limit time spent on a single task

ADHD children, especially those on stimulant medication, likely will not realize they are getting hungry or thirsty until they are dehydrated and/or famished.  They are also likely to build pent up energy if the task they are engaged in is sedentary (such as video games).  Limiting time spent on a single task, or building in 5-10 minute breaks, gives your child a chance to walk around, drink some water, have a small snack, and do a general self-care check-in. Work with your child to figure out a schedule they feel good about, to make sure they feel a sense of autonomy.

Listen and ask questions – your child is the expert on themselves

A friend and her ADHD son were staying with me when we encountered  a ‘Lego meltdown.’ Peter had a room full of messy Legos he hadn’t cleaned up for weeks, and Mom was sick of the mess. She insisted they get started together on cleaning them up together and started organizing his Legos for him. She thought she was helping, but of course, all hell broke loose, and a meltdown suddenly ensued.

Luckily, in this case, we were able to address the meltdown before Peter lost all control by calmly and respectfully asking Peter why he was so upset by his mom putting his gray Lego in that particular bin. He explained that he had his own method of how the Legos should be organized, and when we gave him the space to put things where he felt they should go, suddenly Peter was calm and in control again.

Had mom started out her process by asking Peter what he wanted to do, and why he wanted to do it, the meltdown would likely have been avoided.  Ask questions, listen to the answers, and understand.

Know their triggers and warning signs:

Every ADHD child prone to meltdowns has their triggers.  Work to identify your child’s triggers, and to understand why they exist. Talk through these things with your child to determine the warning signs, and agree on strategies that you and your child will employ to respond to those warning signs.   Your child is the expert on themselves, so must be a part of all of these conversations.

It will take a prolonged commitment of sticking to the strategy on your end before your child is going to adopt and utilize these mechanisms effectively. Your hard work on these strategies, coupled with your child’s buy-in because they helped develop them, will pay off over time and set your child up for long-term success.

It’s Going to be Okay

Meltdowns are a fact of life for many ADHD children and their families, but they don’t have to completely upend your lives. With these strategies, some patience, and a lot of empathy, you and your ADHD child can work together to minimize the impact that meltdowns have on your family’s life. And, you’ll be doing the hard but necessary work of setting your child up with coping skills that will be useful to them for the rest of their lives.

If you need a little help with parenting a younger child with ADHD, reach out to explore some options for coaching support.  Click here to schedule your get-acquainted session with Griffin. 

Peace, Well-Being and Grace to you,

ADHD Coach Griffin RouseGriffin Rouse
ADHD Coach and Executive Skills Coaching
Center For Living Well with ADHD, LLC

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