Screaming and wailing. Throwing toys. Kicking the floor, furniture, or maybe even you.
If you’re a parent or caregiver to a young child, you probably have some familiarity with these common temper tantrum signs — maybe a little more familiarity than you’d like.
Toddlers and younger children often react with outbursts and tantrums because they don’t know how to put overwhelming emotions into words and get their needs met in more productive ways. Most kids begin to grasp the skill of regulating their emotions by the time they reach the age of 5 or so, and the tantrums stop.
Of course, some kids continue to have frequent, severe tantrums and meltdowns, even after they start school. Extreme or aggressive tantrums can have a number of causes — we’ll cover a few common ones below — but they’re fairly common with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Maybe your child already has an ADHD diagnosis. Perhaps you’re just starting to suspect the condition as a possible cause of their frequent outbursts. Either way, we’re here to help.
Read on to get the details on ADHD-related tantrums, plus guidance on coping and finding support.
Tantrums can cause a lot of distress, for you and your child. But while they might be somewhat challenging to manage, especially when they happen in public or when you’re already running late, it often helps to know they’re just a normal part of development.
In other words, it’s not unusual for children to have the occasional tantrum during their toddler and preschool years. These tantrums generally involve many of the same signs and behaviors, whether they’re related to ADHD or not.
A few key signs can help you recognize when your child’s tantrums go beyond what’s typical. These signs often include tantrums that:
- remain frequent past the age of 5
- happen 5 or more times a day on a regular basis
- continue for longer than 15 minutes
- involve destruction of personal belongings or very aggressive behavior toward the self or others
- involve extreme anger or defiance toward caregivers and other adults
Recognizing a meltdown
You’ll often come across the terms “tantrum” and “meltdown” used interchangeably, and certainly, they can describe very similar behaviors. Still, plenty of people use these terms to describe two slightly different types of outbursts.
During a tantrum, your child might feel very upset, but they can usually still control the outburst. When you calmly ignore the tantrum or offer an interesting distraction, they often begin to calm down.
A child having a meltdown, on the other hand, might become so overwhelmed by whatever’s upsetting them that they can’t control their distress. It doesn’t matter whether you give their outburst attention or not. They might continue to cry, scream, kick, and flail until they reach the point of exhaustion — even if they end up hurting themselves.
Experts don’t consider tantrums a symptom of ADHD in so many words. Rather, you might consider them a product of those symptoms.
Common triggers for childhood tantrums include:
- physical discomfort — a hungry, tired, or sick child is often more likely to have an outburst
- anger, frustration, fear, and other overwhelming emotions
- sensory overstimulation
- the inability to ask for or get what they want
- a desire for attention
- a previous successful tantrum — if it worked once, they’ll probably try it again
Key ADHD symptoms can easily interact with these triggers, adding to their turmoil and provoking an outburst. That’s one reason why a pattern of frequent tantrums and outbursts often shows up with ADHD.
These symptomsmight fuel restlessness and your child’s sense of boredom. They might feel frustrated and irritated very quickly and struggle to sit still or stay quiet:
- while waiting for an appointment
- during a library storytime session they don’t find interesting
- when you’re trying to make a phone call
These symptoms can make it difficult to focus on repetitive tasks and activities that require a lot of concentration. Here, too, your child might:
- quickly get bored and have a hard time focusing
- feel frustrated when they can’t concentrate
- become upset if they have a hard time understanding what you’re asking them to do
If they seem very distracted and you assume they’re not listening, you might, understandably, feel a little annoyed and frustrated yourself. Sensing your disapproval can heighten their stress, especially when they’re trying their best already.
These symptomscan affect your child’s ability to manage impulses and emotions.
Kids with ADHD tend to have a harder time reigning in impulses and controlling their behaviors.
- do or say things without thinking
- express anger and irritation outwardly when things don’t go their way
- become even more upset and frustrated when adults punish or misunderstand their behavior
Maybe you need them to pick up their toys, have quiet playtime in their room, or brush their teeth. They want to chase the dog around the house or play on their tablet. When you try to redirect them with a reminder, they might argue or begin a tantrum — especially if you hand down a consequence for not listening, like taking away the tablet.
No matter the source of your child’s tantrums, an effective response can go a long way toward improving the situation and helping you both weather the storm.
Keep these tips in mind:
It’s perfectly normal to feel upset and frustrated when your child has a tantrum, but raising your voice will usually just make things worse.
- Even when you’re on the verge of losing your temper yourself, try to maintain an even tone.
- If they challenge a specific rule, don’t argue. Instead, repeat the rule firmly, but not angrily.
- Avoid trying to reason with them in the throes of a tantrum, since this usually won’t get you very far. Wait until their distress has quieted and they can talk through things.
Use positive discipline
Yelling, spanking, and slamming down objects probably won’t put an end to the tantrum. Angry responses and harsh discipline are more likely to:
- frighten your child
- leave them feeling like you don’t love them
- teach them to respond with aggression
An authoritative approach to parenting, coupled with consistent positive parenting tactics, can help reduce outbursts, not to mention boost your child’s well-being.
- offering positive attention, especially when you sense they’re having a hard time
- praising better choices, like saying “No, thank you,” instead of shouting “No!”
- communicating expectations and rules in clear, simple language
- explaining the consequences for breaking rules and reinforcing them consistently
- offering compassion and understanding, not criticism, when they make mistakes
Ignore the tantrum
Kids don’t always throw tantrums purposely. But outbursts often become more frequent when they realize this behavior gets them what they want. After all, they still haven’t learned more helpful options for coping with overwhelming emotions.
When you ignore the outburst, they begin to learn tantrums won’t work. This often helps stop the tantrum before it really gets going. But it also encourages them to explore other ways of getting their needs met.
Tips to make ignoring a success
- Make sure there’s nothing in the room that can hurt them.
- Carry on with whatever you were doing, without paying attention to them.
- As long as they stay safe, avoid looking at them, asking them to stop, or giving them any positive or negative attention while the tantrum continues.
The goal of ignoring is to stop the tantrum (or any other unhelpful behavior). Once they calm down enough to tell you how they feel or ask for help, responding to their efforts to communicate can help reinforce this positive behavior.
Children with ADHD can still learn how to share their emotions, ask for what they need, and work through frustrations without melting down.
Your guidance can make a big difference in their ability to learn these skills and reach for them when they feel distressed.
When it comes to heading off tantrums before they erupt,
- Communicate. Use a calm tone and ask them to describe their feelings. You can try showing them pictures or offering examples, like “tired,” “mad,” or “hungry” for younger children, or “bored” and “annoyed” for older children.
- Attend. After making sure all of their basic needs are met, offer attention and distractions when you notice the first signs of boredom or frustration. You might, for example, suggest a game or art project, take them on a walk, or involve them in what you’re doing, if possible.
- Listen. Encourage them to share their feelings. If they feel frustrated over a lack of control, try allowing them to make more of their own choices, within reason. This might mean letting them choose their own clothes, even if they stay in pajamas all day, or running around in the backyard and getting dirty instead of quietly coloring or looking at books.
- Maintain a routine. Sticking to a regular routine as much as possible can reduce unexpected frustrations and create a sense of stability they can depend on. You can’t always avoid disruptions, of course, but having a backup plan for snacks, naps and bedtime, and other routine activities while away from home can make things easier for both of you.
If your child’s tantrums seem frequent or excessive, it’s always worth reaching out to a mental health professional, such as a child psychologist or family therapist.
Plenty of factors beyond ADHD can contribute to tantrums, including:
- anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns
- post-traumatic stress
- learning difficulties
- sensory processing difficulties
- problems with hearing or vision
These concerns can show up on their own, but they can also occur along with ADHD. A therapist can offer more guidance with Identifying the specific source, which can make it easier to support your child through moments of frustration and distress.
A therapist who specializes in treating ADHD can:
- teach specific skills to navigate outbursts with parent-child interaction therapy
- help your child explore effective self-soothing strategies
- recommend helpful accommodations for school
- help you both explore tips to reduce and cope with stress
- work with the whole family to help minimize conflict and distress
Depending on your child’s symptoms, care providers may also recommend exploring medication options with support from a psychiatrist.
Tantrums are’t unusual in early childhood, and most children will probably have a few emotional outbursts. That said, extreme or violent tantrums can sometimes point to a more serious concern, like ADHD, ASD, or a mood disorder.
When your child has disruptive tantrums on a daily basis, a therapist can help you narrow down possible causes, plus teach new skills to manage distress and defuse tantrums before they erupt.
Crystal Raypole writes for Healthline and Psych Central. Her fields of interest include Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health, along with books, books, and more books. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues. She lives in Washington with her son and a lovably recalcitrant cat.