When your child has ADHD, they might feel intense emotions from time to time. It could make them act giddy or rowdy, or do things that are inappropriate.
“I hear a lot of stories about being silly and giggly, the class clown type. But not all kids have meltdowns and temper tantrums,” says Max Wiznitzer, MD, a pediatric neurologist at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, OH.
Wiznitzer treats children with ADHD, and he says that several things can play a role in magnifying a child’s emotions. For some kids, the disorder brings on symptoms that make them hyper and impulsive. But it’s more than that, he says. A child’s surroundings also can also influence how they behave. Plus, ADHD can affect thinking skills called executive functions, making it harder for someone to be “behaviorally flexible” and go with the flow, Wiznitzer says.
Kids with ADHD who have tantrums or meltdowns may also have another mental health condition, like anxiety, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, he says. It’s also possible that they may be getting mistreated or bullied.
If your little one acts out a lot, a good first step is to talk with them about their emotions. “If they can name what they’re feeling, then we can think about why it’s happening,” Wiznitzer says. “Once you’ve got those two pieces of information … it’s much easier to put into play what you’re going to do.”
For example, if they tell you “I’m stressed,” you can ask them, “What’s making you feel stressed out?” Maybe they’ll tell you they’re having a hard time at school, struggling to keep up with a class that’s too advanced. In that case, you could talk to their teacher about things that could help, like assistive technology or switching to a class that moves more at their pace.
Pinpointing what your child is feeling and why can also help their doctor make treatment decisions, Wiznitzer says. It’s possible that your child might benefit from counseling, a higher medication dose, treatment for a mood disorder, or a change in surroundings at places like home or school. Call the doctor or a psychologist anytime you notice your child having a mood change that affects them negatively, Wiznitzer says.
So, how do you help your kid talk to you about their frame of mind? A feelings chart might help. “Many times, you can use pictures representing emotions,” Wiznitzer says.
You can ask your child to point to a face on the chart that matches what they’re feeling, and continue the conversation from there. Ask them what made them feel that way. Then work together to come up with a solution. Once you tackle the underlying reason that’s driving them to act a certain way, it could improve their behavior.
This feelings chart may work best if your kid is school-age. It probably won’t help a child who’s 3 or 4 years old and still learning to communicate, Wiznitzer says. “In those cases, you’ve got to read the tea leaves.”