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

By: Patricia Oelze

Updated September 02, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn

What is ADHD? ADHD is a condition that affects nearly 10 percent of children in the United States, as well as some adults. ADHD can make it more challenging for a child to succeed in school, work, and relationships. Read on to learn more about ADHD and stimming. Many of the symptoms of ADHD can cause issues in school such as interrupting others and experiencing difficulty with taking turns and sitting still. Examples of ADHD behavior include stimming and fidgeting.

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ADHD Stimming Types

ADHD is defined as a neurodevelopmental condition that makes it difficult to sit still, control impulses, pay attention, and concentrate. It can also lead to stimming. ADHD is most often discovered when a child starts school. They may have a hard time following instructions or remembering what they are told. They 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 issues include:

  • Interrupts others when 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
  • Constant squirming or fidgeting
  • 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, humming or swaying 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 you or your child more susceptible to ADHD and stimming. For example, male children are three times likelier to have ADHD and stimming behaviors than other children. These are other known risk factors for ADHD:

ADHD Stimming Risk Factors

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

  • Family history of other mental conditions like 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, rock from side to side, or may even start humming. 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

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Some people may think that stimming behaviors are only used by children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, children with ADHD are just as likely to use stimming. In fact, autistic stimming and non-autistic stimming are different. The main difference is that those with ADHD typically only use stimming for a short period of time 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 engage in a variety of stimming behaviors. The five different variations of stimming include olfactory, vestibular, visual, tactile, and auditory. 

Stimming Types

Senses And Stimming

Olfactory
  • Thumb sucking
  • 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 or phrases and 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 have a harder time sitting still, they may use stimming to satisfy the urge to get up and move around. This stimming behavior is a common situation with children in the 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 will rock back and forth while listening to instructions from a teacher or parent.

A useful aspect of stimming is that when a children 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—something as simple as the room’s volume level or something more complex, like anxiety.

Some experts claim that teaching your child executive functions, or task management skills, will help them to self-regulate without stimming in school and other activities. Two examples of executive functions include organization—gathering and categorizing information—and regulation—observing surroundings and adapting behavior accordingly. 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 is a coping mechanism your child has developed to help them concentrate or keep from running around, you can 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
  • 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 can also be treated by other measures, depending on the individual child.

Stimming Treatments

Natural treatments for ADHD may appeal to families who want to avoid giving medication to their children. Some theorize that changing your child’s diet can help, while others believe that music therapy is beneficial. Relaxation exercises like age-appropriate yoga and meditation can positively impact all children. One of the most common ways families treats ADHD “naturally” is by getting their children involved in sports and physical activities, which can help satisfy 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, found in baked goods, snacks, cereal, candy, and soft drinks
  • FD&C Yellow #5 (tartrazine), found in cheese, drinks, cereal, ice cream, yogurt, and milk.
  • FD&C Yellow #6, found in candy, soft drinks, soup, jelly, cookies, chips, and cheese.
  • Sodium benzoate, 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 dancing to music can also be beneficial. Experts say that music has 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 focusing and concentration.

Relaxation

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Learning how to relax is difficult for many 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 struggle to unwind, 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 can 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 For Stimming

If you suspect that your child may have ADHD and stimming behaviors, it is important to consult a mental health professional. An evaluation by a certified child psychologist or another specialist will provide you with positive actions and strategies to support your child, and a correct diagnosis will also 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 absolutely no disparagement of your ability as a parent; in fact, seeking expert advice and support only 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; 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.

ADHD Stimming Conclusion

Thanks to the flexibility of BetterHelp, you and your child can also 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 managing stimming.


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