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

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated April 12, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition that affects nearly 10% of children in the United States at some point in their lives, as well as people with ADHD in adulthood. ADHD can make it more challenging to succeed in school, work, and relationships. This may be because of ADHD symptoms like difficulty focusing, impulse control issues, or self stimulatory behavior, also known as stimming.

According to the American Psychiatric Association publication Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, stimming can manifest as biting nails and making repetitive sounds. Some autism research also links stimming to autism stimming. Both behavioral therapy and non-stimulant medications can help manage stimming behaviors, improve focus, and relieve anxiety in individuals with ADHD. Developing self-awareness of triggers can also help reduce the impact of ADHD on daily life.

Learn about stimming in children with adhd

What is stimming in ADHD?

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition that may make sitting still, controlling impulses, paying attention, and concentrating challenging. This condition is often discovered when a child starts school. They may have difficulty 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 manage tasks or instructions, they may seem to forget something or be unfocused. 

ADHD can also lead to 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 stimming behaviors are only exhibited by children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, ADHD people, including children with ADHD, can be just as likely to engage in self-stimulatory behaviors or ADHD stim. 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, which could also be a way to self-soothe. For example, someone with ADHD may be stimming for under an hour, but someone with autism may stim for several hours.

While stimming and fidgeting are typically thought to include tapping and rocking, children with ADHD may engage in various examples of self-stimulating behavior. The five different variations of stimming are olfactory, vestibular, visual, tactile, and auditory. Here are some examples of each:

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, sanding, or scratching the skin

Auditory

  • Reciting songs, phrases, or words from television
  • Repeating sounds
  • Covering and uncovering ears
  • Snapping fingers or clapping
  • Screaming or humming

It's important to note that some stimming behaviors could lead to self-injury or be triggered by certain situations. Recognizing and addressing the trigger stimming behaviors can help manage stimming and improve the individual's well-being. 

Stimming causes

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

Stimming may also support concentration. 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 may rock back and forth while listening to instructions from a teacher or parent.

A valuable aspect of stimming is that when a child's stimming becomes more aggressive or intense, it may indicate that they are anxious. 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

Stimming is generally considered to be a normal part of ADHD people’s self-control, but can cause issues in environments like classrooms where loud or ambulatory stims can be distracting. In these situations, you may be able to help those with ADHD 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

Non-medicinal 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. ADHD may also be treated by other measures, depending on the individual child. Non-medicinal treatments for ADHD may appeal to families who want to avoid giving medication to their children. 

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 be beneficial. Experts say that music can positively impact cognitive processing and memory functions. If your child already enjoys music, then music therapy might be an excellent way for them to practice concentration.

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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 keep up with the rest of the fast-paced world may have difficulty unwinding, and children can pick up these behaviors early. 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 simultaneously.

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. A correct diagnosis may help clarify your child's needs in the future. 

If your child is diagnosed with ADHD, help is available, both for them and for you, in the form of therapy. Remember that receiving treatment is not disparaging 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.

Online therapy for ADHD

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 an excellent 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 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 helpful guidance. She has helped me manage my anxiety in these uncertain times, and I always le

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Takeaway

Online therapy can help as you continue on your parenting journey. You can take the first step today to help your child manage stimming.
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