6 Tips for Taming the Big Behaviors in ADHD
by Dr. Amy Moore
All behavior is communication. When your child with ADHD is hitting, kicking, screaming, yelling, fighting, writing on the wall with a Sharpie, or flat out ignoring your 879th plea to brush his teeth, he is communicating something to you. And your job is to figure out what that something is. But let’s face it. Your buttons are pushed, your last nerve is frayed, and you’re teetering on the edge of a parenting meltdown. (Or maybe you’ve already melted into the living room carpet along with last Tuesday’s spilled chocolate milkshake that she “forgot” to tell you about.) When you’re emotionally spent, it’s hard to put on your detective hat and discern the message behind the behavior. But the reality is, that’s when your child needs you the most.
Your child’s struggle to manage his big emotions—called emotional dysregulation—is a hallmark feature of ADHD. Neuroimaging research shows us that the brains of children and adults with ADHD look different than neurotypical brains, especially in the amygdala and prefrontal cortex—where emotions are controlled.1 Contrary to what many people think, ADHD is NOT a behavior disorder. It’s a neurological disorder. So if we wouldn’t punish a child for not being able to control his diabetes or asthma, why do we punish a child when she can’t control her ADHD? (A-ha moment, isn’t it?) So, what should you do instead? Let’s talk about 6 ways to help your child with ADHD better regulate his emotions and behavior.
- Stay Calm. Former Navy SEAL Rorke T. Denver says, “Calm is contagious.”2 Although he was referring to staying calm under combat conditions to ensure his entire team stayed calm, the concept applies beautifully to parenting as well. Because of something called “mirror neurons” in our brains (the reason we yawn when someone else yawns), our emotions are contagious. All of them. When our child with ADHD is emotionally dysregulated, he relies on our ability to regulate our own emotions AND his. It’s called co-regulation. If you yell, he yells back. If you show anger, she gets angrier. So, spend some time working on ways to keep calm during your child’s meltdowns and outbursts—breathwork, grounding exercises, prayer—and then respond to her behavior in a calm way. Ask yourself, “What does my child need in this moment? What is this behavior trying to communicate?”
- Focus on Connection. When children are upset, they need connection, not isolation. Sending you child to her room or to a timeout chair will only escalate those strong emotions. Instead, problem-solve through a lens of connection knowing that the words you speak and the gestures you make next will either strengthen the connection with your child or weaken it. Our words can heal or they can hurt. A connected child is more likely to respond to co-regulation of emotions. One tip for helping build that connection is to remember that your child is usually not doing this to you. Instead, your child needs something from you.
- Plan for Transitions. Want to minimize the chance for outbursts when it’s time to start the school day, leave the house, or switch activities? Plan ample time for transitioning from one activity to the next and communicate the plan. First, put the day’s schedule in writing. Next, give 20-minute, 10-minute, and 5-minute warnings before the next activity. (Use shorter intervals with young children. I’ve been known to give 2-minute, 1-minute, and 10-second countdowns with littles.) Then, make transitions fun for younger children with songs or races. Be willing to help with clean-up. Finally, give lots of praise when the transition goes smoothly. The ADHD brain likes the dopamine release from a high 5. Be sure to praise incremental improvements and not just perfect transitions. Any effort is worth noticing.
- Catch Them Doing Right. This idea of praising effort is extremely important. Don’t spend much time and attention on all the things your child with ADHD isn’t doing right. Instead, spend time and attention instead on where she is succeeding. Honor his efforts and celebrate successes no matter how small. Build your child’s self-esteem as often as possible. Children with ADHD struggle with self-esteem and you can be a critical change-maker. The ADHD brain responds best to immediate positive reinforcement, not delayed rewards, so keep those kudos coming.
- Nurture What They Do Well. Child psychologist Robert Brooks tells us that children with special needs like ADHD spend most of their childhood swimming in oceans of inadequacy.3 That means they are usually struggling with failure. In order to build your child’s resilience, nurture what Dr. Brooks calls their “Islands of Competence” or the things they do well. Whether that’s a sport, playing a musical instrument, writing poetry, or participating in community theater, for example, find what your child loves and does well and pour into it. When we build resilience in our children, we increase their capacity for facing adversity and approaching those things that are more challenging with confidence.
- Strengthen your Child’s Executive Function Skills. Another way we can hope to improve challenging behaviors and improve emotion regulation is to strengthen the connection between the emotion area of the brain and the reasoning area of the brain through activities that improve executive function skills like memory, reasoning, and attention. Our research on cognitive training has shown improvements in those skills4-8 but also in cooperation and self-discipline and a decrease in oppositional behaviors. Plus, when you improve cognitive skills that underlie the ability to learn more efficiently, the frustration over schoolwork can decrease as well.
Taming big emotions and the associated behaviors in ADHD is a challenging and ongoing process but these six tips are a starting point for parents who want to dig in. Connection is more important than curriculum, more important than compliance with arbitrary rules, and the most effective means to the co-regulation of emotions. Start there!
Dr. Amy Moore is a cognitive psychologist at LearningRx World Headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She specializes in cognitive rehabilitation training for neurodevelopmental disorders, brain injury, and learning disabilities. Her ground-breaking brain training and cognition assessment research has been published in medical and psychology journals and presented at conferences around the country. She has been a child development specialist, education administrator, and teacher of teachers with a PhD in psychology and a master’s degree in early childhood education. Dr. Amy has been working with struggling learners for 25+ years. She is also Editor-in-Chief of Modern Brain Journal, a TEDx Speaker, host of the Brainy Moms podcast, a licensed pastor, and a board-certified Christian counselor.
You can find out more about her research at LearningRx.com/research and get more parenting advice at TheBrainyMoms.com.
1 Hulvershorn, L. A., Mennes, M., Castellanos, F. X., Di Martino, A., Milham, M. P., Hummer, T. A., & Roy, A. K. (2014). Abnormal amygdala functional connectivity associated with emotional lability in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 53(3), 351–61. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2013.11.012
2 Rice, C. (2017, February 17). A former Navy SEAL shares the No. 1 leadership lesson he learned in military training. Business Insider. Retrieved from
3 Brooks, R., & Goldstein, S. (2002). Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope, and Optimism in Your Child. McGraw Hill.
4 Carpenter, D., Ledbetter, C., & Moore, A.L. (2016). LearningRx cognitive training effects in children ages 8-14: A randomized controlled study. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 30(5), 815-826. https://doi.org/10.1002/acp.3257
5Moore, A.L., Carpenter, D.M., Ledbetter, C., & Miller, T.M. (2018). Clinician-delivered cognitive training for children with attention problems: Transfer effects on cognitive and behavior from the ThinkRx randomized controlled trial. Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 14, 1671-1683. https://doi.org/10.2147%2FNDT.S165418
6Jedlicka, E. (2017). LearningRx cognitive training for children and adolescents ages 5-18: Effects on academic skills, behavior, and cognition. Frontiers in Education, 2(62). doi: https://doi.org/10.3389/feduc.2017.00062
7 Moore, A.L., Carpenter, D.M., Miller, T.M., & Ledbetter, C. (2019). Comparing Two Methods of Delivering ThinkRx Cognitive Training to Children Ages 8-14: A Randomized Controlled Trial of Equivalency. Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, 3(3), 261-270. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41465-018-0094-z
8 Moore, A.L., Miller, T.M., & Ledbetter, C. (2021). Remote vs. In-Person Delivery of LearningRx One-on-One Cognitive Training During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Non-inferiority Study. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 749898. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.749898