Angry looking child with tantrum, ADHD, stop, avoic

ADHD: How to Stop Anger Tantrums In Their Tracks – And Avoid Them Altogether

Anger tantrums are disturbing.

Not only in the situation, but to the health and safety of the entire family and the stuff you own. It makes you as parents avoid specific situations where you know that the child will flare up, and It makes you walk on eggshells to avoid situations that may or may not ignite the fire.

This gives us a variety of problems. Most prominently:

  • The child is not learning to handle his anger, so he continues to express anger/frustration/sadness in an inappropriate way.
  • The child is subconsciously aware that he is “wrong” in expressing anger this way because of the feedback he gets.
  • The child is not appropriately challenged because of the no mans land that surrounds him in certain areas of his life, leading to deficits in his natural development as a child.
  • The siblings take on a number of different roles to either challenge, copy or please the child expressing anger in an inappropriate way.
  • You as parents are constantly in some state of alert or even emergency, leading to stress and subsequently to poor mental and physical health.

What we can do about it

There are a number of ways that we can change this situation. Most of the traditional ways include some kind of motivational strategy like

  • Positive reinforcement – or praise. This works well for most parents that do this consistenly. Especially if they can give praise for the effort to succeed even when the child does not succeed.
  • Positive motivational feedback – includes giving the child stuff like stars, angels, legos, screen time, etc. for behaving well. This is a well established evidence based strategy in ADHD circles and some parents find that it works really well and other find that it has no effect whatsoever. In my opinion it can be difficult to balance acknowledging the child’s efforts when they try but don’t succeed – with not giving a star. Also science shows that in the long run it’s demotivating to expect presents for doing stuff well.
  • Negative motivational feedback – includes taking away from child for continuing his behavior. This can be stars, angels, screen time, etc. There’s no good science to back this strategy and in my opinion is a very dangerous strategy because it is not acknowledging the child’s effort to succeed even when the child does not succeed. I would always go with positive motivation and reinforcement.

The first two are established traditional strategies that have evidence behind them. But that doesn’t mean that they are fast – or that they are the best.

Let me introduce you to two more options that are fast, does not involve a lot of “fighting against your self” and reliably provides parents and children with less tantrums with little effort.

1. Transforming the Anger

This method is described in this article about externalization. In this method you externalize the part of the child that expresses the anger in a way that makes it possible to transform the anger in the child into something else. Sometimes even calm or tranquility.

2. Modeling and Remodeling the Anger

This method is the focus of this article.

Modeling is a process that has a starting point in a very obvious understanding of our behavior:

Behind all behavior is a series of thoughts and emotions

The basic idea here is that what we see as behavior is really only the result. It’s makes it obvious that the important stuff is what is happening inside the child – that creates or motivates the result/behavior.

When we focus on the thoughts and emotions, we have a real chance at creating lasting change very effectively.

Modeling means understanding in detail the inner and outer  processes that lead to a certain behavior. You can think of modeling as the recipe for behavior. When we understand the recipe for a certain negative behavior, we know all the ingrediences and the order in which they have to come.

And as with any good recipe, – if we change the ingrediences or even the order in which they are added, the final result is very different from any previous results.

In the case of anger, imagine the recipe where we suddenly add honey instead of chili. The result is much sweeter and a lot smoother. That’s the idea of remodeling.

How To Model Your Child’s Tantrums

The most basic rule for modeling is to do it while both you and your child are in the “green zone”. That means that both your child AND you have let go of the emotional state that followed the outbursts. Then you can work.

The easiest way to model behavior with a child is to talk to the child about these things in a quiet setting. If your child is sorry about the outbursts, that’s typically a good way into talking about it.

I’ve had parents successfully starting the conversation with: “You know how you get really sad after you cool down from one of your tantrums? I have learned a new trick that can help you control it better. Would you like to see it?”

Then make a drawing like the one below.

Graph showing the development of a tantrum

The drawing shows how a tantrum/fit/outburst develops.

To the left the child is OK, then something happens and the child is maybe irritated. He relaxes a bit and the graph comes a bit back down.

Then something else happens and the child gets frustrated, followed maybe by feeling hurt. Then something happens that makes the child angry and he can no longer contain his emotions.

At some point around here, he reaches his “point of no return”, where he basically just has to let it rip.

After he has reached his peak anger, he quickly (or slowly) relaxes out of it again and calms down.

How You Use The Model

This is a simplified model that shows you what I draw to help my clients understand their own anger outbursts. With clients I’ll always draw the first graph to explain what is on the graph and let my clients understand what is going on.

I’ll move along the graph and explain what might be happening that creates mood swings up and down. And when we reach the left side of the “explosion” part of the graph, I’ll say something like: “And at some point it becomes too much, and this is where the actual anger outburst comes.” I might even mention the point of no return, so we can talk about that later.

Then we get to the outburst and the time it takes to cool back down.

Now in principle you don’t know what is going on inside your child. You do however most likely know what it looks like when your child goes through the different phases. Some parents will say stuff like: “Then you can just see it on his face and count 3-2-1-Booooom!”

What you have here is then the child’s recipe for anger outbursts. Most of these steps along the way are needed for the child to create a tantrum. And with the modeling effort above, you and your child can have a talk about what you have to look for when the child goes through the different phases leading up to the outburst. Because if you know what they look like, you know what to look for.

And then you can help the child break free of the standard recipe and create a new one. Or maybe you can just start interrupting the standard recipe with pattern interrupts. We’ll explore those a bit below.

Co-creating a new model

If you and your child are reflecting together over this model, you can just start asking open questions about what he would like there to be different about the model. And talk openly about how to make that happen. Start talking about how you can try out different strategies to make that work so you can progress together towards less or no tantrums.

Disrupting the model

If your child is not reflecting with you on this, you can start planning when and how you want to break the child free of the current model. What can you do when you can spot that the child is frustrated to bring the child out of frustration and into laughter for example? Instead of leading him on into anger.

Again plan different strategies so you can try different things. You can talk to him about it to let him know, of you can do it on your own. He’ll notice when you suddenly does something different than you normally do.

What to do if…

This way of talking to your child can seem different and/or difficult for some parents. I wouldn’t sweat it. Maybe have the conversation with your partner first, so you have a model of your own outburst (if those ever happen? ;)) and of your partners to (those do happen! :)) That way you’ll be more comfortable. Otherwise just try it out. Tell your child that you read this article. If he’s a teen, let him read along (Hi!) and you can develop this stuff together. Learning to do this through his own reflection will become an incredibly powerful tool throughout his entire life.

For smaller children that maybe doesn’t even realize that their tantrums are a problem to others and themselves, you’ll want to just start calibrating the different phases of his emotional states that lead up to the outburst. And then start your attempts on disrupting the state.

If your child draws with you that’s awesome. He might draw it differently and then you go with his drawing. He knows what his phases are. Or he might not be able to draw it at all, depending on his age. If he doesn’t draw it, you may. Then correct the drawing based on input from him. If your child doesn’t get the drawing just leave it and find your own words to explain. Or not. 🙂

Some children doesn’t realize that there is something happening inside of them right before. “I just explode!” That’s fine too. Rest assured that there’s something and see if you can work your way towards that understanding. You can do role plays to bring out the emotions from some recent outburst. That does it in most cases.

Action Steps

Have pen and paper ready, and start drawing when you have your child’s attention.

Then work through the diffent phases of his model to map what makes his internal states overflow into outbursts. Or in his words: Do a piece of detective work to figure out what is going on inside of him that makes him explode.

And be flexible. If you just explain that this is what’s going on inside of him, you probably be told to buzz of. If you take on the explorer hat and bring him on as an expert, you have a great chance of learning something new about your child.

And he gets to be the one that knows stuff that you don’t.

This is a great place to be if you want to help him change and transform things.

Let me know your questions and comments – and how the process inspires you – in the comments section below!

Have an inspired day,

Anders.