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Question: My son has ADHD, and recently we suffered a loss in the family. He just hasn’t been the same ever since. He seems really sad and short tempered. I think he needs counseling. Any advice?

Answer: Whether children have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or not, they can experience sadness, loss and grief.

Children can have a difficult time understanding and expressing their feelings appropriately.  Depression over loss may be expressed by acting out because they don’t have the ability to express their feelings.  So a child naturally could misbehave. Grief over loss becomes anger at everything; nothing is right. Anger is a great cover-up for hurt and sadness.

How to get past the grief

For a child who has difficulty paying attention, such as with ADHD, feelings can become even more exaggerated. With sadness and grief comes difficulty in thinking straight, controlling outbursts, coping with changes or understanding their feelings. I think this is true for anyone, young or old. So how can a parent help a child get past grief? With time and patience.

Start by acknowledging how he may be feeling. For example, let’s say he reacted negatively to a simple request such as, “Would you please clean up your toys?” by throwing a toy and yelling, “No!” You could respond with, “You’re feeling upset about Grandma.” Make sure you also set a limit about the misbehavior and give him an alternative, such as, “Your toys are not for throwing. You can talk to me about things when they are bothering you instead.”

Try to understand their feelings

This opens up a dialogue with him about the loss and shows that you understand — or at least you want to understand — what he is going through. By showing that you value your son as a person, it will give him a feeling of being heard. Also, it will help give meaning to his feelings. Then you will be able to deescalate his emotions.  At the same time, it’s important to give your child some space. Grieving is a process, like it is for adults.

If the symptoms persist, therapy may be helpful, such as play therapy or art therapy. One of my clients was a child who had lost his baby brother. He was able to draw the process over a period of sessions in the playroom. At first, the pictures on the white board were very black. An orange pumpkin sat in the corner. Over time, the pumpkin grew bigger. By the fifth session, the drawing depicted the last time the family was together with his baby brother. At that point, the child was able to let go of the grief and remember his baby brother with peace and fondness.

Jane Robinson, an infant mental health specialist, is a licensed mental health counselor who co-founded Center for Child Counseling in 1999 as All 'Bout Children. 

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