ADHD and Anger: Tools for reducing family conflict by starting with yourself

Behavioral control and emotional regulation

It’s amazing how a small spark of miscommunication or defiance can trig

ger an explosion in families, especially those living with ADHD. For kids who struggle with executive functioning challenges including working memory, behavioral control and emotional regulation, parents are often sure how to prevent or subdue these fires consistently. Instead, you end up playing whack-a-mole–going from one crisis to another and feeling increasingly burned out by the stress from these intense interactions. How can you prepare for the unpredictable nature of angry outbursts without resorting to unproductive threats, fruitless punishments and yelling yourself?

Step One: Understand the Root of the Anger

The first thing you need to do is look at the  process of anger instead of focusing on its content.  Your kids can push your buttons like nobody else. It’s almost as if they are wired to know what triggers you and sets things off. You do the same for them. Whether it’s conscious or out of our awareness, family members irritate each other. During this time of hybrid or remote learning with extended and increased family time, everybody’s fuses are short. As parents, we may forget that kids with and without ADHD annoy us and push back for several reasons: 

  • To get what they want.
  • Because it can be fun to see you get upset.
  • In an effort to create space or separation
  • When they feel upset and can’t contain their feelings
  • To demonstrate independent thinking or actions

Kids with ADHD, because of their slower-to-mature executive functioning skills, may engage in these behaviors with more frequency and intensity than their neuro-typical peers. We have to help them learn to manage better by monitoring ourselves first. 

Step Two: Parents’ Role

As parents, our job, regardless of how provocative our children and teens may be, is to stay steady, centered and neutral. Of course, it’s tough to be calm when your son is cursing at you because you told him to stop gaming now or your daughter is crying because she’s exceeded her time limit on her phone and wants more. Most of us just want the arguing and tears to stop. So we do whatever it takes to make that happen–even if it means giving in to their demands, backtracking on what we say we were going to do or screaming louder to dominate and frighten them. These solutions will not improve your situation. 

Step Three: Give Kids the Tools to Manage Emotions

Kids with ADHD need tools to manage the big, tidal waves of emotion that threaten to swallow them up. Sometimes, they will keep

 on arguing and pushing you even though they know things will end poorly.Marla, age 14, told me: “I don’t want to give in or I can’t give in. Then I’ve lost.” Letting go seems like another failure. Delay tactics, avoidance, and denial are all methods to distract you from holding onto yourself and choosing a different response.

 

When young male deer or elk come of age, their antlers are covered in velvet. These bulls need to remove this velvet and they rub against trees to do this. They eat, drink, frolic with comrades and continue to come back to the tree for respite and aide. They need assistance taking off their velvet and transitioning to adulthood. Our children do the same. We are the tree: we stay rooted, we weather storms, we offer protection, we may be punctured by a sharp poke from an antler. But we are steady, dependable and strong. The tree never yells at the elk and tells them to back off and go away. The tree may lack the necessary bark to help with the removal of the velvet and may not be able to meet the buck’s needs. That is okay. The bull can roam elsewhere, eventually returning for another attempt to rub away the remnants of adolescence with the bark of that familiar tree. 

Now I’m not saying parents should be silent trees, absorbing abuse from their children. Rather I’m advocating a position of self-Control rooted in self-awareness and patience. Of course, you have to set limits about inappropriate language, aggression and harmful behaviors. You are still responsible for the health and welfare of your son or daughter and your own sanity matters. What I’m suggesting is that you use this example as a metaphor: to actively say to yourself when your child is having a meltdown (as one of my clients does), “I’m being the tree. I’m being the tree instead of exploding.” You use it as an affirmation, as an image of strength, as a comfort that this too will pass. 

Step Four: Parents’ Tools

Kids have told me over and over that they don’t like conflict in the family any more than their parents do. This is your golden ticket to reducing arguments with them. Follow these steps to change your approach and respond differently when anger rears its ugly head:

  • Predict: Although each situation may vary, the process of how your child or teen responds when they are angry is more consistent. What are the types of responses you notice? How were these issues resolved? Jot down some of your ideas. Then schedule a calm time to discuss the anger pattern with your son or daughter using neutral statements such as “I’ve noticed. . .” or “It seems like. . .” Share a few observations about your reactions too.
  • Prepare: Preparation leads to success. No, you can’t plan for every situation or eventuality but you can have a basic, consistent approach for when someone is showing you with their bodies, words or actions that they are triggered and losing it. Use Stop, Think, Act (see resources) and plan for a Time-Apart until things cool down. Together, make a list of soothers (activities that settle someone down) to assist with this process.
  • Practice: Collaborate on how you’ll decide to call for a Time-Apart and which activity to use. Set a time-limit for this period of regrouping. Remember that it takes the nervous system at least twenty minutes to recover from an acute stress reaction which includes intense anger. New skills and patterns require a lot of repetition and scaffolding for them to take hold. Stay patient and take the long view. 
  • Pivot: If what you are doing in a given moment to respond to a face-off isn’t working, pivot and try something else. Think outside of the box and leave yourself reminders on your phone or Post-its so you don’t have to come up with something when you’re stressed. You want to let your child or teen know that you mean business without yelling or escalating. To that end, make sure you’ve agreed to a fall- back plan that everyone agrees to. The aim of the agreement is collaboration towards changed family dynamics. Set up a non-cooperation clause from the start.

Good luck, breathe deeply and remember: stay rooted to rise up. 

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