Perhaps the most helpful information for mothers to hear is that their child’s ADHD outbursts are a normal biological response to frustration and anger. By paying attention to certain cues your child exhibits, you can even view tantrums as a predictive science, charting them and preparing for them down to the second. Children from 18 months to 4 years are naturally hardwired to misbehave, which means that your parenting is not always to blame.
Causes of ADHD Tantrums
Let’s take a brief look at your child’s brain in relation to causes of tantrums. The prefrontal cortex of the brain is responsible for regulating emotion and controlling social behavior. It is also the last area of the brain to develop, beginning its maturation at age 4. Because this is so, the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex is a major cause for why young children are prone to outbursts and irrational displays of emotion.
Stress is another factor to consider as a cause for your child’s difficult behavior. Children under 5 years old are still in a stage of “magical thinking”, which means that normal events to us as adults can still be scary and confusing to them. They do not yet fully comprehend that a dog won’t eat them whole, or that their brother can’t separate his thumb from his hand. The feeling of heightened arousal due to stressors can cause children’s bodies to release cortisol – the “fight or flight” hormone. As cortisol increases, blood pressure speeds up, which may lead to confused and fearful thinking, which ultimately may lead to a tantrum.
The average tantrum lasts about three minutes. That’s why, shortly after a tantrum, your child will have returned to playing as though nothing happened (while you’re still bubbling from the event 20 minutes later). This happens because your child’s immature prefrontal cortex allows him to move along without dwelling on past hurts. The expanded timeline may look something like this:
0 Seconds: Charlie melts down in clothing isle of Target.
30 Seconds: He stops his feet; this one will be a short one.
90 Seconds: He’s kicking and screaming at the pear of his anger.
3 minutes: And like that, Charlie stops. Now he looks for comfort.
6 minutes: Charlie is acting as though nothing has happened.
(10 minutes): If his fits always last this long, talk to your doctor.
How to Manage Tantrums
The next time your child has an episode, remind yourself that they are just trying to get their needs met (however magical). However, by throwing a tantrum, the behavior they exhibit to get that need met is inappropriate. Perhaps they are looking for attention, or for something tangible such as food or a toy. Regardless, your best course of action is inaction; ignore the behavior completely and maintain your composure. For example, you could quietly say ‘I’m not talking to you while you are behaving like this’, thereby removing the chance of emotional escalation. Otherwise, your return of an outburst will only add fuel to the tantrum’s fire. Once the anger passes, your child can then access their sadness for not getting their need met, and that is when they reach to you for comfort.