How To Help Kids With ADHD Manage Their Feelings At School & With Friends

Photo: DGLimages / Shutterstock
young girl sitting in classroom at school

Parents of kids and teens with ADHD often seek advice on managing oppositional behavior.

What may start with a defiant “no” can escalate into a tantrum quickly, taking a long time to subside. These explosions likely happen when kids feel both flooded and agitated. Neurodivergent youth put a lot of effort into managing their feelings at school or with friends.

When they get home, they don’t feel obligated to hold it together anymore. As one teenager said to me: “If I get in trouble at school, I can get kicked out. I’m not going to be kicked out of my family.” 

And so, parents often take the brunt of these escalations — and aren't always sure how to respond. Here are a few ways to do that.

RELATED: You Are Not At The Mercy Of Your Emotions

How the ADHD brain responds to overwhelming emotion

With working memory and processing speed challenges, kids and teens with ADHD often feel emotionally, cognitively, and/or socially overwhelmed. Biologically, they lack adequate amounts of dopamine and norepinephrine in their brains.

This deficiency makes it difficult for people with ADHD to process and recall information efficiently and keep up with all the activities around them. In addition, neurodivergent youngsters frequently struggle to articulate these unconscious cognitive processes.

So when kids feel stressed or flooded by emotions, they often act out with resistant or oppositional behaviors to set a limit on the overwhelming input around and inside of them.

“No” simply becomes the default response when tensions rise.

RELATED: Two Psychological Tricks That Can Help You Survive When Life Gets Hard

What ‘no’ might really mean

Don’t be tempted to take "no" at face value.

It could be your child’s way of expressing a wide range of emotions they can’t articulate. A "no" might be the default response to what your child or teen may grasp as a demand rather than a request.

Before you investigate what "no" means, reflect on how you ask your child to do something or engage them in a task. Invitations, doing something alongside them (being a body double) and noticing their efforts contribute to better cooperation.

Find a quiet moment and ask them about "no," keeping an open mind and an open heart.

Be curious and gather some information. Is saying "no" about setting limits, being contrary, slowing things down, or something else?

Maybe it’s a combination of things. Brainstorm alternatives to "no" that include coming up with a few words or phrases to use when they need more time to think.

RELATED: 5 Practical Ways To Majorly Increase Your Emotional Intelligence

The PAUSE Program for managing emotions

The PAUSE Program is a practical strategy for deescalating your child’s defiant outbursts and staying collected throughout the process.

Nobody likes meltdowns, explosions, or arguments, including your child or teen. Instead of being surprised every time your youngster pushes back or refuses something, understand that these behaviors are a natural part of growing up and exploring independence.

Expect these incidents to occur, and rely on a steady, calming strategy for when they do. Get them to take a pause by using the acronym PAUSE - plan, accept, understand, set limits, encourage. 

The steadier you stay, the faster you’ll be able to diffuse the conflict and reset. And that’s a winning strategy for the whole family.

RELATED: Why Some People Lose Their Cool When They're Angry — And How To Make It Stop

Plan ahead with options   

Make a plan ahead of time for coping with the pattern of anger for yourself and your child rather than reacting rashly in the middle of the storm.

In a quiet moment, make a list of what you can easily do to stay grounded. If you are deregulated, you won’t be able to respond effectively or help your youngster calm down. Whether it’s making a cup of tea or opening a window, break up the action in a non-threatening way. This re-centering needs to be your initial reflexive step to slow down the fast-paced action.

Once you’ve clarified this for yourself, sit with your child or teen and ask what helps them regroup.

What helps them slow things down? What types of activities would soothe their upset?

Follow up by asking how much time they need for this. Write down their options, and post the list in their bedroom or the kitchen.

RELATED: Is Your Kid A Hot Mess? 10 Ways To Help Your Child Keep Their Emotions In Check

Accept, nurture and acknowledge

Stop trying to convince your child or teen of anything. Instead, accept where you both are in a given moment.

Your child stopped listening when they became activated. They also want to be seen and heard by you.

Acknowledge what they say with reflective listening: “I heard you say this; is that right?” 

When they feel that you are paying attention–instead of correcting them for cursing at you or justifying why you called the school about their F in English–they will start to see the support you are offering and be open to settling and dialogue. 

RELATED: How To Be The Emotionally Present Parent You Wish You'd Had As A Kid

Understand and practice compassion

As tough as it can be, empathy is what’s called for when kids–especially neurodivergent kids–are distressed.

Kids and teens with ADHD often feel overwhelmed.

Their thinking brains and weaker executive functioning skills simply cannot manage their heightened emotions. They act out because they lack the resources to do anything different in those moments.

Kids need adults to dig deep and find compassion rather than explode about how they should get their act together. Many parents feel desperate to regain authority and establish stability when a child is resistant or oppositional.

But while punishments may offer short-term relief, they don’t bring long-term success.

Avoid saying things like, “I’m taking away your phone for three days. You can’t talk to me that way.” 

Instead, turn it around and say, “You have not earned the privilege of using your phone with that language. You’ll get it back when you can go for 3 days without cursing. That’s the agreement we have.” 

Relying on appropriate incentives is what shifts negativity to cooperation.

Set limits and clear rules to foster collaboration

The goal is to help kids improve executive functioning for self-regulation, interpersonal connections, and achieving goals.

It’s a natural part of living to become angry, wants to get your own way and avoid disappointment.

However, it’s not okay to act out with aggression. Punishment doesn’t teach any lasting skills, and it rules by fear. Logical consequences, in contrast, allow you to set limits and use meaningful incentives as motivators.

The trick is staying steady in the face of your child or teen’s displeasure and following through.

For example, in a family meeting, make collaborative agreements about unwelcome actions and words and clarify the consequences of breaking these agreements.

RELATED: When Parents Embrace Social Emotional Learning, Kids Feel The Joy Again

Encourage by focusing on the present and moving forward

Once the storm has passed, focus on the present moment. What needs to happen now to move beyond its wreckage?

This is not a time to teach lessons. The situation is too raw for your child or teen and may trigger another outburst.

They need encouragement rather than blame. Talk about the next move to get on with things instead.

Later, casually wonder about the takeaways from what happened.

Was there anything each of you regretted? How would you like to deal with that behavior in the future?

These questions open up the conversation, explore options and validate positive engagement.

When tensions rise and anger escalates, it’s best to pause to regain control of yourself and ensure you won’t do or say things you regret. 

RELATED: How To Keep Fears, Triggers & Past Traumas From Controlling Your Life

Sharon Saline, Psy.D., is an international lecturer and workshop, facilitator. She has focused her work on ADHD, anxiety, learning differences, and mental health challenges and their impact on the school and family dynamics for more than 30 years.

This article was originally published at Sharon Saline's website. Reprinted with permission from the author.