Most parents have a particular image of what an anxious child looks like: He (or she) is expected to exhibit shy, clingy, and nervous behaviours. Seldom do parents pause to consider the idea that their aggressive, temperamental, or defiant child may also be chronically anxious. Instead, they think their child’s outbursts must stem from an innate desire to push the limits and/or a general need to get his own way.
While it’s true that a need to test boundaries can drive occasional acts of aggression in otherwise normal children, chronic acting out is usually indicative of deeper issues—and anxiety is one of the most common of these. It’s important to understand that for anxious children, acting out does not arise from a wish to do the wrong thing or provoke others; on the contrary, anxious children often want to behave better, but they’re being driven by an out of control “fight or flight” reflex. Their behaviour is a reaction to internal, rather than external, factors.
This does not, of course, mean that anxious children should not be held accountable for bad behaviour; they need boundaries just as much as (if not more than) other children. They do, however, require some additional patience and understanding from their parents. If you’re dealing with an anxious child, it’s extremely important to recognize that he’s anxious, let him know that you understand where his behaviour is coming from, and then begin gently guiding him toward making better choices when dealing with it.
How will you know whether or not anxiety is driving your child’s outbursts? While only a mental health professional can confirm the cause of your child’s aggressive behaviour, there are some signs that parents should look for: Does your child often complain of “feeling sick,” yet when he’s taken to the doctor, nothing appears to be the matter? Is there a detectable pattern to his outbursts, e.g., do they happen predictably before he has to go to school or when he’s taken somewhere that’s unfamiliar to him? If your child’s tantrums frequently coincide with situations that could feasibly cause a child anxiety, it’s likely that nervousness is the culprit rather than rebelliousness.
We all know what anxiety attacks in adults feel like. As is the case with adults, the first step a child needs to take when trying to change his behaviour is to fully comprehend why he does what he does. Your child may not realize he’s anxious; he probably thinks he is just a “bad kid”… And this kind of thinking has him convinced that he can’t change. If you can show your child where his behaviour is coming from and encourage him to have compassion for himself, he’ll be able to conceptualize and plan an alternative course of action.
In order to explain how anxiety can drive aggression, you’ll first need to understand how the brain responds to stimuli it deems threatening. When your child perceives danger (whether that danger is real or imagined) the part of the brain known as the amygdala reacts immediately. It sends a signal to the body to release a wave of stress hormones (notably cortisol and adrenaline). These hormones essentially “speed up” the mind and body so that we’re prepared to fight or evade risks in our environment. Children whose anxious brains tend to choose the “flight” response behave in typically nervous ways (avoidance, clinginess, etc.) whereas children whose brains typically default to the “fight” response act out aggressively. Neither response is “wrong” and both are natural (and in the right context, useful) reactions to threatening stimuli.
When it comes time to discuss anxiety with your child, you will want to frame the above process in a positive light rather than a negative one. While anxiety can be difficult to manage, at base this “alert system” is a vital asset that’s been keeping us alive for thousands of years. Your child needs to understand that his mind is not flawed or broken, it’s simply a bit overprotective. Rather than waiting for danger to become obvious, it goes on high alert whenever he enters an unfamiliar, challenging, or stressful situation because it wants to make sure he avoids danger altogether.
One of the best child-friendly metaphors to use when explaining how anxiety works is to liken it to a smoke alarm: The smoke alarm goes off any time it thinks there might be a fire. It doesn’t matter if there’s an actual fire or if someone has simply cooked bacon without the oven fan on, the smoke alarm reacts as if everyone is in immediate danger. Does that make the smoke alarm bad? Of course not; it’s a life-saving device. Like the human mind, it just reacts defensively at the first sign of threat because that’s what it’s been programmed to do. It can’t help that, and neither can your child, so make sure to emphasize the fact that you don’t blame him for his behaviour (you just expect him to learn to manage it better over time).
Your child must also be educated on why he experiences the physical symptoms he does (a racing heart, clammy skin, upset stomach, and so on). Because your child has no literal, physical danger to escape in most of the situations that trigger his anxiety, all of that nervous energy ends up stored within his body where it produces a range of uncomfortable feelings. It’s essential that your child knows he’s not actually sick—because these symptoms feel very real, some children become even more anxious once they kick in. This becomes a vicious cycle wherein the child is often anxious about his anxiety.
Once your child can understand his anxiety objectively, the rational part of his brain will be able to help control the hardwired responses of his amygdala. He will still, however, need a few tips from you on how to manage his anxiety.
4 Ways to Deal With Anxious Aggression
Identify triggers. Tell your child that you understand how confusing it probably is for him when he suddenly loses his temper, then encourage him to help you find patterns that make sense of his experiences. If he frequently doesn’t feel well before going to school, for instance, you can ask him if there’s anything about going to school that bothers him. This can yield important information: If he’s struggling to focus or master a particular subject, for example, he may have an undiagnosed learning disability. If he’s worried about the other children not liking him, he may be experiencing bullying, social anxiety, or another condition (like Asperger’s Syndrome) that tends to make social interaction challenging. Remember that while sometimes anxiety is the product of a child’s unique body chemistry, sometimes it has a root cause. Identifying what’s driving the anxiety, in the latter case, is essential to treating it effectively.
Let your child know that change is possible. Your child needs to know that he is the one in control, not his brain—even if it feels otherwise at times. Explain to your child that it is possible to change the brain over time: Brains can be “trained” to respond more appropriately to their environments if we practice altering our reactions and behaviours. This is because choosing different thoughts and actions forms new pathways in the brain. The stronger these pathways become, the easier it is for us to behave the way we want to.
To help your child remember that he’s the one in control, ask him to memorize “power phrases” that he can use when he starts to feel anxious or aggressive. Tell him to repeat mantras like these in his head: “Okay, brain, I’m the boss and I know there’s nothing to worry about right now,” or, “It’s all right, brain, we can calm down; nothing is going to hurt us.”
Teach your child deep breathing exercises. Strong, deep breathing activates the part of the brain responsible for engaging in rational thought and overcoming anxiety (the prefrontal cortex). Your child should, however, be made aware of the fact that mastering this skill takes time; he can’t breathe deeply once or twice when he’s upset and expect his racing mind to calm down. For best results, he should practice deep breathing when he isn’t anxious or angry. He should also be given visualization and/or counting exercises to help him hit the right pace. Asking your child to imagine that he is breathing in his favourite scent (a cup of hot chocolate, for example, or a rose) can help him to both inhale deeply and relax into more positive feelings. Alternately, if your child struggles to visualize when he’s upset, you can ask him to simply count to three each time he inhales or exhales. If your child is quite young, he may benefit from using a stuffed toy as a “breathing buddy” while he counts. He can rest the soft toy his belly and feel it going gently up and down as he breathes.
Help your child practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is, at base, the conscious habit of living in the present rather than letting your thoughts persistently stray toward the future. (Indeed, something as simple as eating a piece of fruit while intently focusing on each step in the process—smelling, tasting, chewing, and swallowing—constitutes a form of mindfulness exercise.) Mindfulness exercises teach children to focus on what they’re feeling in the present moment, accept it, embrace it, and then let it go. One particularly useful mindfulness exercise for taming anxiety is visualizing each worried thought rising upward while contained in a bubble. The child should look at the thought, accept it without judgment, and then let it float away.
Alternately, you can give your child a notepad and ask him to stop whatever he’s doing when he begins to get upset and write down a name for what he’s feeling. Or, if he’s too young for this to be effective, you can take him aside when he’s agitated and name the feeling you see. (E.g., “I can see that you’re upset right now because you have to go to daycare. I understand; going to work stresses me out sometimes, too.”) Whichever tactic you and your child choose, naming feelings has a way of taming them. When someone uses words to describe their emotions, they strengthen the connection between the rational and emotional parts of their brain; this facilitates the effective processing of even very intense emotions. If your child starts practicing this skill early in life, he will grow up with a better emotional vocabulary and higher “EQ” overall.
Above all else, parents must remember to keep the discussion about anxiety—and how to deal with it—focused on strengths rather than weaknesses. Remind your child that you know he’s a good kid at heart and affirm the many strengths that come with having a highly alert mind. The more empowered your child feels, the more motivated he will be to learn how to master and control his anxiety.