Repetitive Behaviors In Children With ADHD: Stimming And What It Means

Updated December 1, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

ADHD is a condition that affects nearly 10% of children in the United States at some point in their lives, as well as some adults. ADHD can make it more challenging to succeed in school, work, and relationships, and this may be because of difficulty focusing or stimming, which is an abbreviation of self-stimulatory behavior. Read on to learn more about ADHD and stimming.

Learn About Stimming In Children with ADHD.

ADHD Stimming

ADHD is defined as a neurodevelopmental condition that may make it difficult to sit still, control impulses, pay attention, and concentrate. Many of the symptoms of ADHD can cause problems in school, such as interruptions and difficulty with taking turns and sitting still. ADHD can also lead to stimming and fidgeting.

ADHD is often discovered when a child starts school. They may have a hard time following instructions or remembering what they are told. They may find organizing their belongings difficult and tend to misplace things often. Because their brain may not readily organize tasks or instructions, they may seem to forget things or be unfocused. Examples of symptoms that indicate attention challenges include:

  • Interrupts others when they are speaking

  • Does not take turns

  • Blurts out answers before the question is completed

  • Cannot sit and play quietly

  • Runs around or is very restless

  • Will not stay in one place long

  • Squirms or fidgets

  • Forgets instructions often

  • Is easily distracted

  • Loses things

  • Lacks organizational skills

  • Does not pay attention to anyone or anything very long

  • Makes careless mistakes

  • Gets bored easily

  • Taps fingers or feet, hums, or sways back and forth

  • Bites nails or chews on the inside of the cheek

  • Appears not to be listening

Stimming Risk Factors

Although the precise origin or cause of stimming is not yet understood, certain risk factors may make someone more susceptible to ADHD and stimming. For example, male children may be three times likelier to have ADHD and stimming behaviors than other children. The following are other known risk factors for ADHD:

  • Prenatal factors like smoking, drinking alcohol, or using drugs while pregnant

  • Family history of other mental conditions, such as depression or anxiety disorder

  • Brain injuries

  • Low birth weight

  • Heredity or family history

  • Environmental issues, such as pollution or toxins

Children who have ADHD typically find it hard to sit still and may start stimming. When they are trying to concentrate, they sometimes tap their feet or hands, hum, or rock from side to side. These behaviors are called stimming, which is an abbreviation of self-stimulatory behavior. This stimming usually serves to stimulate their senses and help to quiet sensory overloads.

Stimming Behaviors

Some people may think that stimming behaviors are only exhibited by children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, children with ADHD can be just as likely to use stimming. Autistic stimming and non-autistic stimming are different. The main difference is that those with ADHD typically only use stimming for a short period while trying to concentrate. For example, someone with ADHD may be stimming for under an hour, but a person with autism may stim for several hours at a time. While stimming and fidgeting are typically thought to include tapping and rocking, children with ADHD may engage in a variety of examples of stimming behaviors. The five different variations of stimming are olfactory, vestibular, visual, tactile, and auditory. 

Olfactory

  • Sucking one’s thumb

  • Tasting or licking things

  • Sniffing or smelling things or people

Vestibular

  • Spinning

  • Twirling

  • Pacing

  • Rocking

  • Jumping

Visual

  • Looking out of the corners of the eyes

  • Gazing at nothing

  • Staring at objects that have lights or movement

  • Blinking

  • Lining up objects

Tactile

  • Rubbing hands together

  • Hair twirling

  • Patting, rubbing, or scratching the skin

Auditory

  • Reciting songs, phrases, or words from television

  • Covering and uncovering ears

  • Snapping fingers or clapping

  • Screaming or humming

Stimming Causes

There are many reasons why a child may use stimming. For example, because children with ADHD may have a hard time sitting still, they may use stimming to satisfy the urge to get up and move around. This stimming behavior can be common among children in a class who know that they must remain seated.

Sometimes, stimming may support concentration. Young students with ADHD may use stimming methods to help them concentrate on tasks. For example, humming while reading or listening can be a way for a child to use stimming to keep their mind on track. Some children rock back and forth while listening to instructions from a teacher or parent.

A useful aspect of stimming is that when a child’s stimming becomes more aggressive or intense, it may indicate that they are anxious about something. If you notice that your child is humming louder than usual or rocking faster, you may want to look into what may be bothering them. It may be something as simple as the room’s volume level or something more complex, such as anxiety.

Children with ADHD often struggle with one or both of these functions. Some examples of the executive functions that may be more challenging for children with ADHD include:

  • Improving time management

  • Planning ahead

  • Learning from past mistakes

  • Controlling emotions

  • Moving from one activity to another

  • Making better decisions

  • Organizing time and materials

Breaking Stimming Habits

Because stimming may be a coping mechanism your child has developed to help them concentrate or keep from running around, you may be able to help them override these patterns and make stimming less necessary. Some strategies that may help include:

  • Frequent breaks between tasks

  • Reward systems

  • Independent test-taking

  • Use of swivel chairs

  • Extra books

  • Visual aids

  • Sitting in the front row

  • Audiobooks

  • Extended homework deadlines

Holistic And Natural Treatment For ADHD And Related Symptoms

When a child is diagnosed with ADHD, they may be prescribed medication to help the chemicals in the body and brain stabilize. However, ADHD may also be treated by other measures, depending on the individual child.

Natural treatments for ADHD may appeal to families who want to avoid giving medication to their children. Some theorize that changing a child’s diet can help, while others believe that music therapy is beneficial. Also, relaxation exercises like age-appropriate yoga and meditation can also positively impact children. Another common way that families treats ADHD “naturally” is by getting their children involved in sports and physical activities, which may help satisfy their needs to move around and use up energy.

Elimination Diet

Some experts claim that food additives are the main cause of ADHD in children and theorize that the increased availability of processed and artificial foods has contributed to a rise in ADHD cases over time. If you think your child’s diet may contribute to ADHD and stimming behaviors, an elimination diet that removes these additives from their food choices may bring helpful results. Some of the additives that researchers recommend avoiding include:

  • FD&C Red #40 is found in baked goods, snacks, cereal, candy, and soft drinks.

  • FD&C Yellow #5 (tartrazine) is found in cheese, drinks, cereal, ice cream, yogurt, and milk.

  • Sodium benzoate is found in salad dressing, fruit juice, jam, and carbonated drinks.

Music Therapy

Music therapy can involve playing along with music, singing, or composing music as well as listening to it. Learning to play an instrument or even dance to music can also be beneficial. Experts say that music can have a positive impact on cognitive processing and memory functions. If your child already enjoys music, then music therapy might be an excellent way for them to practice concentration.

Learn About Stimming In Children with ADHD.

Relaxation

Learning how to relax can be difficult for people of all ages, regardless of any psychological or emotional diagnosis. People under pressure to get things done quickly and to keep up with the rest of the fast-paced world may difficulty unwinding, and children can pick up these behaviors at an early age. Helping your child practice age-appropriate meditation or yoga may help both of you to relax more easily and regularly and prevent your child from stimming.

Exercise

A half-hour of physical activity per day is recommended for most people, but children with ADHD may benefit even more from the release of energy that physical activity provides. Finding a team sport or other physical activity that your child enjoys, especially one that allows them to engage positively with peers, may help them expend leftover energy and build friendships at the same time.

Talk Therapy

If you suspect that your child may have ADHD and stimming behaviors, you might consult a mental health professional. An evaluation by a certified child psychologist or another specialist may provide you with positive actions and strategies to support your child, and a correct diagnosis may help to clarify your child’s needs going forward. If your child is diagnosed with ADHD, help is available, both for them and for you, in the form of therapy. Remember that receiving therapy is no disparagement of your ability as a parent; in fact, seeking expert advice and support demonstrates your caring for your child. Furthermore, the CDC recommends that parents of children with ADHD receive support and training in behavior management from a certified mental healthcare professional.

You may wonder how to fit the cost and commitment of therapy into your already busy life. If so, online therapy with BetterHelp may be a great solution for your family. Online therapy can be arranged around your life, on a schedule that suits yours. With no need for transportation to an appointment, you can save time and hassle, and you can choose the format that works best for you: video chats, phone calls, emails, or text messages.

Consider these reviews by others who have relied on BetterHelp therapists for support in their families.

BetterHelp Therapist Reviews

"Elizabeth has been a wonderful counselor – she’s an incredible listener but knows the perfect moments to step in and ask the right question or provide a helpful piece of guidance. She has helped me manage my anxiety in these uncertain times and I always leave our conversations feeling stronger than I did earlier in the day."

Kim has been tremendously helpful as I navigate the most challenging year of my life. She listens carefully and offers helpful guidance. Having her there, as I work on current and deep-rooted issues, has been significant. The amount of personal growth and focus I’ve experienced with Kim has been life-changing; I’m overwhelmingly grateful to have her support.

Takeaway

With BetterHelp, you and your child can have appointments together or individually as needed for stimming treatment. Online therapy can be a big help as you continue on your parenting journey. You can take the first step today to help your child manage their stimming.

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