How We Can All Learn about Anger from Children with ADHD

By Jason, 9 years old, and his mom, Nicole Biscotti, M.Ed.

Most of us are pretty uncomfortable with anger.  We avoid it. We are afraid of it. We are expected to hide it because it’s impolite.  We reject people who display anger. We view anger as an uncontrollable emotional force that is dangerous.  At its extreme that is true however at their extreme most emotions are dangerous. As a culture we have been suppressing and avoiding anger for so long that most of us don’t even know how to react to anger appropriately – our own or another person’s.  

Children with ADHD suffer from a reduced ability to self regulate as compared to most people.  Most ADHDers are also impulsive and highly emotional. Given these characteristics of ADHD, it shouldn’t be a shocker then when we are faced with a child who regularly, and quickly, display explosive anger.  The problem is that we don’t know how to handle anger and since most of us can’t properly address our own anger, we are not very capable of supporting children with ADHD learn to regulate their anger. A lot of the rejection and social isolation that children with ADHD experience is a result of our own discomfort with anger.  ADHDers provide us with an opportunity to face our own fears about anger. 

My personal discomfort and disconnect with anger became clear to me when I was confronted with pretty much daily incident reports about Jason’s behavior in preschool.  When I read reports, or received phone calls about his violent episodes, I was afraid, ashamed, and unsure of how to handle Jason’s behavior. I didn’t know how to stop him or understand why he would get so angry.  I was particularly shocked and horrified at facing scenes like a classroom that had to be cleared and seeing the aftermath of one of his meltdowns or arriving on campus to see my son in a restraint in the media center. 

Jason shares, “I remember I was at my preschool and I was mad, I think because I just wanted to play with legos but some other kid kept saying “no”.  I grabbed a big ruler and just started hitting everything I could see. I was about to explode and I was running and the teachers were chasing me. It’s not like I wanted to do that or it’s not like this was my way to get my anger out. I was just so angry I didn’t even know what I was doing and at that point I was just still mad at the kid.”

Anger is rarely, if ever, a primary emotion.  Anger is a cover of another emotion. Anger protects us, it helps us cope, and it gives us a sense of control when we feel most vulnerable.  When we take this into consideration, we should view the scene where a child with ADHD just threw over a couple of chairs and is running out the door of the classroom in a different light.  Perhaps we can begin to see children with ADHD’s anger through a lens of understanding rather than reacting through our own discomfort and conditioning to suppress anger. We could begin by asking what is underneath the anger.  Is the child afraid, overwhelmed, scared, bored?  

“I was playing on the playground by my house with wood chips and some kid just threw them at me.  Maybe he was playing like he was being funny but I don’t know. He kept laughing about it and I got so mad, I just wanted to punch him in the face.  I felt mad because I get very angry fast, I’m probably more angry than other people. Sometimes I feel like because I’m hyper and I get mad fast other kids don’t want to play with me, like they don’t have any patience with me and get annoyed.  Sometimes I try to walk away from them when they don’t want to play with me but then I just feel bored and that pretty much gets me mad too. This time I didn’t punch him, I just ran away and went to my mom and she helped me to calm down”. 

As a mother, Jason has taught me to view anger as a signal, a cry for help, and a need for understanding.  When Jason is angry, I know that he needs me the most. My first reaction now is to help him calm himself and start asking questions as soon as he’s ready to talk.  We address his feelings and concerns and discuss other ways to handle frustration. We also work on putting strategies in place like breathing, walking away, etc. that expand his “0 to 60” reaction time to anger.  This is a learning process for both of us and some days are better than others.

As a teacher, in all honesty it is more confronting to work with students’ anger.  Once I became adept at supporting Jason through anger I started to feel a little impatient with his teachers when they found it difficult.  Then one day I had a student approach me in a way that actually scared me. I didn’t know the student well and could not predict to what length he would act out or possibly become violent based on his anger.  This experience of working with an angry student humbled me and reminded me that as Jason’s mom, I have a great deal of comfort, history, and familiarity with him. That is not the case for his teachers. This is a great example of why teachers, parents, and kids have to work together and develop strong communication to support children with ADHD.  Supporting kids with ADHD is so much more a conversation than a list of strategies. Children with ADHD need support in calming down and working through anger, much like we all do at times.

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