Managing Meltdowns and ADHD with the 4 R’s: How to help calm and reconnect with kids and teens

Mother with her two kids happily baking together at the kitchen table.It’s a rainy Saturday, and you decide to bake chocolate chip cookies with your son, Leo (age 10), who has ADHD, and your daughter, Anya (age 8), who does not. Initially, things go smoothly with the kids taking turns as they move through the steps of the recipe. At one point, though, you ask Anya to crack both of the eggs because Leo often misses the bowl with most of the yolk, and he loses it. Suddenly, it’s time for managing meltdowns.

Leo starts yelling at her, and then at you, for not making sure things were fair. “Why didn’t you give me a chance?” he screams. “Leo,” you say gruffly, “Here, you add the flour. It’s not a big deal.” His face turns red: “She gets to do all of the good stuff.” Leo flips over the buttered cookie sheets and storms off to his room. Anna starts to cry and, to be honest, you’re feeling a bit teary yourself. In moments like this, what can you do to support both children and maintain your own composure?

Seeing ‘acting out’ behaviors from a different angle

When a child or a teen shows their distress, what they are sharing is just the tip of the iceberg. Whether you see crying, protesting, hitting, running away, shutting down or seething, these behaviors are all signals that something is going on underneath the surface. Our job is to try to learn what that is.

Of course, behavior is behavior. When it’s unexpected, unkind or dysregulated, it’s often not acceptable. However, as parents, educators or counselors, our job is to look for clues at what kids are really trying to communicate.

Underneath that behavior is either:
(1) a struggle to adapt to or accommodate to demands of a given situation
(2) an ineffective effort to express unmet needs and get them satisfied.

Learning what’s beneath the surface

For so many kids with ADHD, clear communication of what’s really going on for them is a challenge. Start with a HALT assessment (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired). Then, move on to uncover other needs.

For instance, they may have a need to stay busy. This might be because their mind gets distracted easily or they dislike feeling bored. They may want what only they want because they can’t tolerate disappointment. Or, they may not know what they need, which is very uncomfortable, too.

Mother yelling through a microphone at her preteen kid who looks back surprised

As tough as it might be in tense momentsour job as adults is to manage ourselves while distinguishing between (1) their intentional behaviors and (2) their physiological stress responses.

Is this on purpose, or is this on neurological autopilot? Perhaps the emotional brain has perceived a threat or danger and reacted without having the thinking brain to modulate.

With naturally weaker executive functioning skills, many kids with ADHD go to this neurological autopilot faster than their neurotypical peers. Of course, trigger warnings differ from person to person. This is tough in those high-octane moments because you may not know what has set off your child or teen.

Managing meltdowns from conflict to calm

Stress in the body doesn’t respond to punishments or rewards. Instead, the body needs calm responses to encourage and elicit settling down. This starts with a pause, calling a stop in the action, which is so very hard to do. Then, there’s acknowledging what is happening in real time, without blame.

For example, how do you respond when Leo becomes activated and starts to yell? Ideally, your first response would be acknowledging his disappointment and frustration rather than redirecting him to the flour. That is because he experiences the redirection as you ignoring his feelings.

In addition, one person’s emotional upset can have a cascading effect on other people. This is why co-regulation, maintaining your self-Control to keep your feelings in check, matters so much. The calmer that you can remain, the better the chances are that your child or teen will settle faster.

How conflict originates

Mother with her hand out talking to her son on his laptop at the kitchen tableConflict generally occurs from a combination of how we try to attend to our needs and when we express them with blame, demands and aggression.

In heated moments, it can be tough to remember that kids (and adults) would always prefer to regulate, if they could figure out how to do that. We can help our kids by shifting our perspectives and our words from “why can’t you” to “what about this is hard right now?” When people feel met where they are, and accepted even in moments of profound distress, it slows down the activation process and starts the process of healing.

Managing Meltdowns with the 4 R’s of Relationship Co-Regulation

Follow these 4 R’s of Relationship Co-Regulation to help your family cope with meltdowns and improve cooperation and accountability:

1. Reflect:

Reflect back what you hear them say without interpretations. “I hear that you wanted a chance with the eggs. Is that right?” Or, “I notice that you want things to be fair. Did I get that correct?”

2. Reframe:

Change a demand into a request. When your child says, “I want my bagel now,” ask them to restate that into a question. Instead of you commanding, “Set the table now for dinner,” try “It would be great if you would set the table now,” or “Would you please set the table now?” Become more mindful of your tone as well by practicing tone of voice (T.O.V.) awareness.

3. Respond:

When facing a problem to solve or a power struggle, respond with a solution inquiry from a WE perspective and brainstorm options. “How can we work together to deal with the dirty laundry on your bedroom floor today?”What can we do about dishes that you left in the sink last night?” You invite their participation and their creative thinking.

4. Redirect:

This occurs when you choose one of those options you just brainstormed together. But, sometimes you just can’t find a decent solution. That’s okay. In those moments, it’s time for a pivot. Agree to set aside whatever isn’t working and move on to something else.

Later, maybe even the next day, return to the issue and discuss it briefly. You don’t want to stir the whole thing up again, but rather, offer your compassion for their struggle, and decide if there is something to do at this point. 

Remembering and celebrating the positives

Family of four laughing, singing and hugging indoors under string lights.In the midst of the hardest moments, maintaining some type of positive connection with your child or teen is the ultimate goal, and sometimes the most challenging.

Many kids with ADHD have a loud and active internal voice of criticism and negativity. Lean into their positive choices and cooperative behaviors by noticing and validating their efforts.

Consider making a Practice-Makes-Progress Panel on your refrigerator, a bulletin board, or some empty wall space with Post-its detailing an effective choice. As reminders of past successes, these can act as cues for the future and nurture positive self-esteem, too.

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