Anxiety or Aggression? When Anxiety in Children Looks Like Anger, Tantrums, or Meltdowns

Anxiety or Aggression? When Anxiety in Children Looks Like Anger, Tantrums, or Meltdowns

Anxiety can be a masterful imposter. In children, it can sway away from the more typical avoidant, clingy behaviour and show itself as tantrums, meltdowns and aggression. As if anxiety wasn’t hard enough to deal with!

When children are under the influence of an anxious brain, their behaviour has nothing to do with wanting to push against the limits. They are often great kids who don’t want to do the wrong thing, but they are being driven by a brain in high alert.

If we could see what was happening in their heads when anxiety takes hold like this, their behaviour would make sense. We would want to scoop them up and take them away from the chaos of it all. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they should be getting a free pass on their unruly behaviour. Their angry behaviour makes sense, and it’s important to let them know this, but there will always be better choices they are capable of making. 

Once kids have a more solid understanding of why they do what they do, they will be well on their way to finding a better response. Here’s where the adults in their lives will make a critical difference. Parents, grandparents, teachers – anyone who is able to understand and respond to their behaviour as something driven by anxiety, rather than ‘naughty’ behaviour, will be helping them to find healthier, stronger, more effective ways to respond to the world. All kids have it in them to do this, but anxiety can have a sly way of stealing the attention from their strengths. Now to put an end to that.

Anxiety or Aggression?

Anxiety happens when a part of the brain, the amygdala, senses trouble. When it senses threat, real or imagined, it surges the body with hormones (including cortisol, the stress hormone) and adrenaline to make the body strong, fast and powerful. This is the fight or flight response and it has been keeping us alive for thousands of years. It’s what strong, healthy brains are meant to do. 

An anxious brain is a strong, healthy brain that is a little overprotective. It is more likely to sense threat and hit the panic button ‘just in case’. When this happens often, it can create ‘anxiety about the anxiety’. One of the awful things about anxiety is the way it launches without warning, and often without need, sending an unsuspecting body unnecessarily into fight or flight.

For kids with anxiety, any situation that is new, unfamiliar, difficult or stressful counts as a potential threat. The fight or flight response happens automatically and instantaneously, sending neurochemicals surging through their bodies, priming them for fight or flight. Every physical symptom that comes with anxiety – racy heart, sick tummy, clammy skin, vomiting, shaky arms or legs – is because of the surging of these neurochemicals. The natural end to the fight or flight response is intense physical activity. If the threat was real, they’d be fighting for their lives or running for it. When there is no need to fight or flee, there is nothing to burn up the neurochemicals and they build up, causing the physical symptoms of anxiety. (For a detailed child-friendly explanation of what causes each of the physical symptoms of anxiety, see here.)

If anxiety is having a hand in the angry behaviour, the signs of anxiety will still be there in some way. Look for any type of avoidant behaviour, sick tummies, headaches, sensitivity to new or unfamiliar situations. Any of these might be a clue that anxiety is hard at work. Take note of when the meltdowns or tantrums happen. Is there a pattern? Do they seem to happen more in unfamiliar situations or situations that might overspend your child’s emotional resources?

Why do some kids show anxiety as anger?

Anxiety is often associated with avoidance or clinginess but it doesn’t necessarily present itself in this way. The physiological driver is the same – a brain under threat – but instead of flight, it initiates fight. It doesn’t matter that there’s nothing at all there to worry about. When the brain thinks there’s trouble, it acts as though it’s true.

Think of this like a smoke alarm. A smoke alarm can’t tell the difference between a real fire and burnt toast, and it doesn’t care. All it wants to do is keep you safe. It does this by making enough noise to get a response. Better safe than sorry. The brain works the same way. An anxious brain is a very protective brain, and it will be quicker to hit the alarm, even when there is no need. This could happen in response to unfamiliar situations or people, playground scuffles, criticism, disappointment, threat of embarrassment or failure – anything that could potentially trigger the feeling that something bad may be about to happen. 

The fight response is the brain’s adaptive way of giving a young body the physical resources it needs to deal with a situation that feels potentially harmful. Remember, this reaction happens automatically and instantly. It’s so quick that there’s no time for any conscious consideration as to whether or not the threat is real. 

As part of growing up, children regularly find themselves in unfamiliar situations where they have to negotiate and learn strategies for dealing with the world and its people. This is how they learn emotional and social skills that will move them towards being strong, healthy adults. In the meantime though, for an anxious brain, it’s trouble at every turn! Any situation that puts expectations on them and demands that could exceed their own developing resources will have the potential to trigger anxiety.

Like the flight response (avoidance, clinginess), the fight response is an automatic, hardwired response from a brain that thinks it’s under threat. That doesn’t mean that kids can’t be taught to control it – they absolutely can – but first they need to understand what’s happening. 

As the adults in their lives, it’s important to be open to the possibility that beneath an aggressive, disruptive child, is an anxious one looking for security and comfort. If anxiety is at play, dealing with aggression as bad behaviour will always inflame the situation. On the other hand, dealing with it as anxiety will give them the strategies and support they need to find their way through, as well as teaching them vital skills that will hold them well for the rest of their lives. 

Practical ways to deal with anxiety-driven aggression.

What kids need to know.

•    Explain where anxiety comes from.

Kids can do amazing things with the right information, and it’s important not to underestimate their potential for understanding. When it is something that is personally relevant, their capacity for understanding is immense. Here’s what they need to know, but it doesn’t need to happen all at once. Giving them the information over lots of small, incidental chats will be just as powerful.

‘Those times you get really angry are probably confusing for you. I know you don’t want to do the wrong thing and I think it will help if I explain what happens when you get angry like that. First of all, you need to know that everyone gets angry for all sorts of different reasons. Your reason is a really good one – it’s because your brain is working hard to protect you. 

There’s a special part of your brain called the amygdala. We all have one. The amygdala’s job is to warn you of danger and keep you safe. Think of it like your own little warrior, there to protect you. Yours works especially hard. When it thinks there might be danger, it surges your body with a type of superhero fuel – oxygen, hormones, and adrenaline – to make you strong fast and powerful enough to deal with the danger.

This could be anything that your brain thinks might hurt you or make you feel uncomfortable – new people, new places, too much noise, having to do something that feels risky. Everybody has something that makes them feel anxious. We’re all the same like that.

Your brain doesn’t care if there actually is something there that could hurt you. It just wants to keep you safe, so it fuels you up just in case. There’s a really cool name for this – it’s called fight or flight – fight the danger or run from it. Guess which one your brain gets you ready for. It’s getting you ready to fight the danger.

This happens really fast – so fast that you won’t even realise it’s happening until you have the angry feelings inside you. Your brain is super speedy and it surges you with fight or flight fuel before it has even thought about whether or not the danger is real. This happens in all of us, but in some people it happens more, especially at times when there’s no need for it. More than anything in the world, your brain wants to protect you and it works really hard to do this – even at times you don’t really need protecting.

Here’s something important you need to know: The same part of the brain that has the very important job of keeping you safe and ready to deal with trouble, also deals with your emotions. When it thinks you might be in danger, it switches on. When it’s on, your emotions will be switched on too. Sometimes they will be switched on big time! This is why you might feel like you want to burst into tears or get really angry.

None of this means that you can blame your brain for losing your temper. What it means is that you have a really strong healthy brain that works hard to look after you. It wants to be the boss of things, but everything will run smoother when you’re the one in charge of your brain!

There’s something else about brains that you need to know. Brains can change. They’re pretty amazing like that. At the moment, your brain tends to be a little overprotective of you but you can train it so that it doesn’t react as much when there’s no danger about. It will still protect you by letting you know when there’s trouble and it will still be awesome at getting you ready to deal with it, but it won’t do it as much when it doesn’t need to. 

There are a few things you can do to be the boss of your brain and train it to relax more. It will still be ready to fuel you up if there actually is danger, but if you’re the boss of your brain, you get the final say. What this means is that when there is no danger, you’ll be able to settle your brain much quicker. Let’s talk about some ways to do that.’

•    Breathe – but you probably haven’t breathed like this before!

‘Strong deep breaths will always calm an anxious brain (and an angry one!) but that’s not so simple when your brain is busy trying to keep you safe. The last thing it wants to do when it’s in protective warrior mode is to take time out to relax. It thinks that there is some serious work to be done to keep you safe! First let’s talk about why strong deep breaths work, then some special ways to get your breathing perfect.

Strong breathing calls up the front part of your brain, called the prefrontal cortex, which is a part of your brain that is able to calm things down and think things through. When your amygdala thinks there’s danger, it gets bossy and tells this part of the brain that it’s not needed. This is why it’s so important for you to learn how to be the boss of your brain. When you’re in charge, you can get the front part of your brain involved in deciding whether or not to fight or flee.

This is really important. The front of your brain is great at calming your amygdala – the part that’s triggering your fight and the angry feelings. 

How do you get the front of your brain involved? By breathing. Breathing is like a lullaby for your amygdala. It helps it to realise that there’s nothing to worry about. When this happens, the amygdala will calm down and so will you. But – you have to practice breathing when you aren’t angry. It’s too hard to do new things when you’re really upset. We all struggle with that! Breathing strong breaths is like any new skill. The more you do it, the better you’ll get.

Here are some fun ways to practice – and it will take some practice, so be patient and keep doing it every day.

Is that hot cocoa you’re holding?!

Pretend you are holding a mug of hot cocoa. Breathe in for three seconds through your nose, as though you are smelling the delicious rich chocolatey smell. Then pretend to blow it cool, by breathing out through your mouth for three seconds. Keep doing this four or five times, then you’ll start to feel yourself relax.

Find yourself a breathing buddy.

Put a soft toy on your belly. Breathe in for three, hold it for a second and then breathe out for three. If the toy is moving, you’re breathing deep into your belly – just like strong breathing is meant to be. You’ve got it.

Remember we talked about changing your brain? Every time you breathe through your anxious feeling, you’re helping to change and strengthen your brain. You’re doing something pretty amazing and the more you do it, the better you’ll get – but you do have to practice!’

•    Have your powerful thoughts ready.

‘When you start to feel yourself getting angry, this is the time to let your brain know you’re the boss. Here’s the secret – you’ll have to work out what to think, and practice thinking it, before you get angry. The more you practice, the easier it will get. After you’ve been practicing it for a while, you’ll be able to find your powerful thought without any effort at all. Just like your breathing though, it will take practice. Work out what your powerful thoughts will be. Pretend that you are speaking to your amygdala – that fierce little warrior of yours that is trying to keep your safe. It will always be ready to listen. Practice it out loud or quietly in your head. It’s up to you. ‘It’s okay warrior dude. We’re all good here. You can relax. There’s nothing that can hurt us here.’ Then, keep practicing your strong brave thoughts until they become automatic, which they will.’

And other things to do with them.

•    Mindfulness.

The research on the effectiveness of mindfulness could fill its own library. Mindfulness has been proven over and over to have enormous capacity to build a strong body, mind and spirit. Building the brain against anxiety is one of its wonders.

Anxiety happens when the brain spends too much time in the future. This is where it grabs on to the ‘what ifs’. Mindfulness strengthens it to stay in the present. It’s simple, and kids take hold of the concept beautifully. They are mindful little beings anyway, but the more they can strengthen this skill, the stronger they will be. It’s a wonderful skill to have, anxious or not.

Mindfulness is about stepping back and seeing thoughts and feelings come and go, without judgement, but with a relaxed mind. It has been shown to strengthen the connection between the instinctive, emotional back of the brain (the heartland of the fight or flight response) and the pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain that soothes it back to calm).

Mindfulness for children generally works best it’s kept to about five minutes or less but let them keep going for as long as they want to. Here are some fun ways to practice mindfulness with kids

•   Name it to tame it. 

Big emotions live in the right side of the brain. The words that make sense of those emotions live in the left. Sometimes, there is a disconnect between the two. It can happen in all of us. When there is a disconnect, there are big feelings, but they feel overwhelming and they don’t make sense. 

Think of it like this. The left part of the brain is ‘this is what’s happening’. It is the literal understanding of the world – the concrete data, the facts. The right part of the brain is ‘this is how I feel about what’s happening’. It’s a more emotional, intuitive understanding of the world. If we only had our left brain, we would have great detail (‘this happened and then this happened’), but it would be a colder, more detached way of responding. If we only had our right brain we would have a sense of how we felt about an experience, and there would be plenty of emotion, but the more rational understanding would be missing. The detail of the world is important (‘this is what happened’) but so is the bigger picture (‘this is how I feel about it’). 

For kids, a powerful way to bring calm when they are in the midst of a big feeling is to name the feeling. As put by Mark Brackett from the Center for Emotional Intelligence, ‘if you can name it, you can tame it.’ When your child is in the thick of a big, angry feeling, name the feeling you see. ‘I can see that you’re really angry right now.’ ‘It has really upset you that you weren’t allowed to run through the supermarket. I get that. It’s hard having to be still sometimes isn’t it.’

Hearing the words that fit with their feelings will help to strengthen the connection between the right and left sides of their brain. When this happens, the emotion will start to ‘tame’. It will feel less like an ambush from a big woolly feeling and with your words, it will start to make sense. Be patient. It won’t happen straight away, but it will make a difference. It will also help to expand your child’s emotional vocabulary. This is a powerful part of developing their emotional intelligence, which is vital for any child as they grow.

•    Lift them up.

Kids who find themselves regularly throwing tantrums or being aggressive will probably have a lot of focus put on their bad behaviour. Lift them up by focusing on their strengths. Here are some common ones that come with anxiety.

And finally …

If your child seems quick to anger, be open to the possibility that anxiety might be the culprit. The most powerful way to turn any type of anxiety around is to explain to children the driving force behind their behaviour. This will help to empower them and put the focus on their strengths in managing their behaviour and help lift them to full flight.

You might also like …

‘Hey Warrior’ is the book I’ve written for children to help them understand anxiety and to find their ‘brave’. It explains why anxiety feels the way it does, and it will teach them how they can ‘be the boss of their brains’ during anxiety, to feel calm. It’s not always enough to tell kids what to do – they need to understand why it works. Hey Warrior does this, giving explanations in a fun, simple, way that helps things make sense in a, ‘Oh so that’s how that works!’ kind of way, alongside gorgeous illustrations.

 

 


 

[irp posts=”1818″ name=”18 Important Things That Kids With Anxiety Need to Know”]

178 Comments

Jess

Thank you, I can’t express enough how much this has helped me. I have been struggling with dealing with my 6year olds emotions for 3 years now, no one understands what we go through but this has described exactly her! I feel awful for not dealing with her better but it is so constant and overwhelming. I look forward to helping her coup and manage her anxiety.

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Lily

I am a 12 year old and I have just read your article and it has helped me so much I have had really bad anxiety for my whole life but I never thought that it could be the reason behind my tantrums if my mother had have known this when I was younger then I probably would still pack them

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Karen Young

Lily I’m so pleased this article has helped you. Every day we are finding out so much more about how brains work, but there is a lot we still don’t know. What I know for certain is that parents do their very best. This information is still getting ‘out there’. It isn’t something that tends to be widely known, but this is slowly changing. I love that you have found this information. Now that you know better, you will be able to gently learn how to manage your tantrums. Don’t worry if this doesn’t happen quickly. You are built for beautiful things.

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JoLynn

Thank you, I have an anxious 6 year old who struggles with anger and tantrums regularly over the smallest of inconveniences or “not getting his way” I have struggled with how exactly to address the problems since it started around 3 years old. I have had tons of unhelpful responses from friends and family on how to punish him for this behavior and rude comments suggesting I spoil him to much. To me through it is very clear he is not being unruly, he is struggling and his response is real to him and not manipulative in nature. He is a good kid, he is always generously thinking of others, he loves being helpful, he is an amazingly smart student, he cares so much about his little brothers and all family. My husband and a lot of his family struggles with GAD too, this has been the best and most helpful article I have read by far. Thank you.

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Joyce F

I have had flight symptoms for decades. Maybe my whole life. I was never loved for who I was. My mom wanted me to be a ‘nice girl’ and just get along with all the distinction around me.
We all have a God given purpose and talent. We should never be told we need to fit into societies norms or expectations. We are all sovereign beings meant to evolve into a life of peace, prosperity, and abundance.
My granddaughter hits others in the face because they anger her. If she didn’t express her anger, she would get depressed. She is four years old and in head start.
We Must pay attention and deal with these problems immediately. So much more I could say. Peace and good will to All…

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Susan

My 12 yo daughter has been struggling for almost two years. At first I chalked it up to her being the baby and her older sister ( only a year older) getting more attention because of her abilities in softball. ( extra practices, paid lessons attention from coaches and other parents from the team). This year however she has come into her own and become an awesome catcher and baller in her own right. Her sister is on a different team this year and they both seem to flourish apart. When ever she is asked to do her chores she explodes! Screaming no and shut up to myself and her step dad. She told him today that she wished he would have never married me. He has raised her since he was 18 months old so doesn’t remember her bio dad. He is not consistently in her life. He is bipolar and has addiction issues. I have never refused him contact with them over the phone but it is beyond sporadic. She has swung at both of us kicked us…. the whole nine. Punched or kicked holes in her wall. She wakes up in the middle of the night and cooks… she eats 3 meals a day and our pantry always has snacks or other extras they have access to. I’m printing this article for her and hoping that it awakens some self control in her. When she has one of her meltdowns we send her to her room where she proceeds to scream like a banshee throw things at her walls slam her door and has recently started hitting herself. She has been diagnosed with ADHD but I wonder if it is something more. I’m almost to the point of thinking she may need more help than I can give her. 18 months ago I had an amputation that I’m still recovering from and I don’t know if my limited abilities have anything to do with her increased level of rage but am honestly open to any advice at all.

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Jason

Some of this article makes sense, but I do have issues with how society says we have to constantly lift our children up. Society wants to give them 5th, 9th, last place trophies so they “feel” good all the time, but this just makes crashes of negativity even stronger.

I think the majority of depression in our children is the fact we try to constantly have them on a “high” of happiness, which is impossible by the way, your brain can only handle producing so much of specific chemicals. We end up driving children into the ground of negativity.

Your child isn’t special, they are not a princess. If you keep telling them that they will fall hard in high school.

When I was growing up my mom, who was amazing, always told us we were special, but when my sister (5 years younger) was constantly told she was a princess and special and the best singer, dancer, etc, she fell so incredibly hard once she started getting the taste of the real world. Now she is cynical, negative, always has “health” problems and rarely ever happy with life. Life is always against her in her mind.

Love your children, protect them, but they should never be first in the family. If your child is #1 then your family is broken and your child can’t live up to that expectation. When the marriage is first then the child feels safer and in turn is happier, yet, somehow, America has this backward these days. In the end, the child ends up broken, the marriage broken and people confused as to what was done wrong.

This also greatly increases anxiety in children when they are put 1st. We would think they would be happy, but they are not.

When our daughter was hit with an incurable disease, we made our focus on her #1, practically ignoring our other 3. Some of that needed to happen to help her, but in less than a year she was snobby, mean to her siblings, self-absorbed and just plain spoiled at 5 years old. We realized our mistake and quickly reigned her in and she is much better.

Our children are special, to us, but be careful building them up on a pedestal, they will fall, and fall hard and end up resenting you for it.

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Emma

Wonderful article. My son is 6 years old and had these aggression outbursts over minor things. He gets upset, angry and screams and tells me he can’t control it. I talk with him, try to distract him but I usually have to wait till it’s passed. He then gets upset after and apologizes and hugs me. He’s has displayed anxiety every now and then where he doesn’t want to do something because he feels nervous, like a presentation in class or starting a new soccer club. He doesn’t have these outbursts at school.
Other then that he is a beautiful boy, he’s smart, doing very well at school and has great friends.

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Amber

This was a very informative article. My grandson has some tantrums that are very hard for him to understand. This will help a lot

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ceecee

I have to also say this. We are being urbanized in many ways where we live, and we hate it! Fast track freeways, pack and stack apts., condos, and thousands of new homes, make our area so congested and stressful. So many children have to live in this environment and even those with homes may only have a small square of grass in the back yard, cannot be on their own to roam, and really live like children should. Schools keep them inside most of the day and they are so confined. My husband and I are in our mid 60s and remember how it was for us as children. From young we were free to walk around our small towns, exploring. When we lived in rural areas, we could explore nature and feel free! Children need that, they need sun, exercise and nature. How can children be children if they are not allowed to experience what has been normal for children for centuries? Life inside with TV or wifi is not normal, not healthful, and yet the children are expected to live this way. Even dogs are stressed because they do not live in environments that they need. Big paying jobs in large cities are not the easiest on people in general. Many studies show how getting out in nature is so healthful for mind and body. And when we grew up we did not have all these issues like kids do now, because life was DIFFERENT. We expect kids to adjust, but how can they? They are kids and there is a reason for their issues. Blue light, computer screens, processed foods, etc. modern life is not natural.

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Kim

As I am reading this article it has my granddaughter name all over it! She is ADHD PTSD, OCD ODD. I have had her since birth. All the meds they have here on is crazy. She definitely has ADHD Im wondering if all these other diagnoses could just be anxiety!!!!

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Leeanne

Hi, a friend forwarded your article to me.
I’m very I interested in what you ha e ti say, as I have high anxiety myself I understand what your explaining. My question to you, how do I implement your suggestions for my 2 and half year old daughter, she definitely follows the symptom sign for having anxiety, and has likely picked this up from me as I am a suffer, I have been coping with my anxiety, with many of your suggestions plus others, I am currently doing the polyvagel
theory with my counselor. So I work at always being calm with my daughter, obviously children of my daughters age are quick to understand and learn, but I have no idea how to implement coping skills with her, she is talking well and understands concepts. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

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Mel

Hi. My almost 13 year old daughter has a terrible anger spell. She speaks so loudly and blames both my husband and I that she’s the way she is. Yes my husband was a bit of a short tempered person, but praise God, he’s changed and become a better person now. However, when my daughter does get into such an aggressive state, she keeps saying, why are you doing this to me, her breathing becomes very heavy and her right hand trembles and she’s got a fierce look. Last evening I went up to her to give her a tap and she caught both my hands so firmly that I honestly could not move.

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Janna

What a wonderful article! My son, now 6, has struggled with his anxieties for years and this is the first article I’ve read that makes sense…I’ve ordered him the hey warrior book and amygdala cuddly as I can really see this making a difference! Karen, I haven’t explored your website fully but any particular insights into severe food anxieties specifically? Thank you again…I have a feeling finding this article online may be a life changer for us! X

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Karen Young

Janna I’m so pleased this was able to make sense of things for you. In relation to your little man’s food anxiety, anxiety happens in the same part of the brain regardless of what it’s directed at. Sometimes the symptoms of anxiety might show themselves differently, but they are driven by the same mechanism. There is a load of information about how to manage anxiety on this link https://www.heysigmund.com/category/with-kids/anxiety-in-kids-and-teens/, as well as videos for you to watch with him on this link https://www.heysigmund.com/category/with-kids/anxiety-videos-for-kids/.

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Lisa W

Just wanted to say this is one of the best articles I’ve ever read. I actually think it’s life changing. I’m using this with my son and to teach my students about anxiety. Thank you so much!

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Kelly

My son is nearly 9. He has an extremely low frustration tolerance and is very quick to anger. For example this evening his 3 year old brother was on his bed and instead of asking calmly for him to get off he instead went from saying nothing to yelling at him to get off. This might seem normal if it was isolated to annoying siblings but he constantly seems to go from zero to 100 in a matter of seconds. If he feels annoyed or threatened by his younger siblings he shoves then over without even thinking. It’s impulsive, I would definitely say a ‘fight’ response. He difficult in other areas too. He backchats and argues A LOT. Most requests from us as parents result in an argument, some sort of high level abussive complaining and back chat. I feel like there’s so much to deal with and I go between being empathetic about his behaviour and dishing out punishments for it. I just don’t know what to do. He’s quite a bright kid and he’s so interesting. He knows all of the techniques for calming down but flat out refuses to use them.

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Shweta

Your article exactly what my 5 year old is doing,she changed schools ,as had severe anxiety towards the school she was studying in ,we accompanied her on first day to the classroom n i sat with her ,she was perfectly fine ,next day again I sat with her she was ok until I left downstairs for a few minutes and hell broke loose… something triggered her and she became really violent and hit the teachers around n r threw the chair ,tore a chart ,the school teachers were worried I came to the rescue.The principal was kind enough to give another chance to her ,next day my husband waited outside the school ,she came to check with the teacher once ,but was okay to find me still waiting.Next day again checked but was ok to find me.once she checks on my husband she seems fine n the rest of the day passes on smoothly .Now.mu husband is not going to b available due to work for dropoffs n waiting outside ,worried will she stay when I drop off n when she sees me as she is more attached to me …how long will this last !!Am I on the right track !

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Dee

My son is 12 and is adopted and I really think his anger has to do with the cortisol streaming through his body and the fact that he is anxious (and always has been). He is fine at school but at home, so many little things will set him off, especially if I mention the word “homework.” (and he’s a good student). We have decided that he needs some self soothing methods so we are going to try cognitive behavior therapy. Fingers crossed.

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Stacey

My 4.5 year old son has been in play therapy for his aggression and control issues since Aug, and while things have gotten a little better, he has started crying every time I drop him off at preschool and hysterically crying when I drop him off at daycare. Today, I couldn’t get him off of me and he cried for a half hour before I finally just took him home because I and the daycare provider couldn’t even keep him in the door. When we ask him why he doesn’t want to be there, he says I don’t know no mater how we ask him. He says he wants to be with me (I work from home), but I think he just wants to sit and watch his Kindle all afternoon. How can I tell if it’s anxiety or just him trying to manipulate the situation into getting what he wants. Normally, I don’t give in to the crying and clinging, but I had to today. I couldn’t let the daycare deal with what was going on. I think the daycare provider is tired of dealing with him, so she did little to help the situation because she had others to care for.

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Karen Young

Your son is being genuine when he says he doesn’t know why he doesn’t want to be there. Anxiety is like that. Here is an article that will explain that https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids-and-teens-avoidance-brave-behaviour/. It doesn’t mean there is anything bad happening at daycare, or that something bad has happened. At daycare he is away from you, there is a routine he has to follow, he is with lots of other kids, there are rules there that aren’t at home – it can be exhausting and hard work for little people. This doesn’t mean he shouldn’t go, but it makes his behaviour make a little more sense. I expect he wishes this wouldn’t happen to him either. If you suspect it’s the Kindle, take the Kindle away and let it be something he can have after daycare. You might find this won’t make a difference to his behaviour, because with anxiety, it’s not a matter of ‘won’t’, but a matter of ‘can’t’. In this case it’s possible that he would still be happier doing absolutely nothing at home with you, then at daycare where there are rules, routines and lots of people. His control issues aren’t to control and manipulate other people, but to control his anxiety. His behaviour will ease in time when he is able to understand and manage his anxiety. When you manage the anxiety, the behaviour issues will go away. In the meantime, here are some strategies to start teaching him ways to manage his anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-very-young-kids-11-ways-to-make-a-difference/. Here is another article that will give you some strategies in the moment https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-children-metaphor-put-shoes-right-beside/. I understand how distressing this is for both of you, but understand that it isn’t bad behaviour and it certainly isn’t because of anything you’re doing. It’s anxiety, and everything in his body is telling him to get away from the situation. In time he will develop valuable skills that will help him not just with his anxiety, but generally.

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Helena

This is an excellent article which explains so well what is going on in our anxious 5 year old’s brain. He shows both fight (at home to his family) and flight (at school) responses. I am concerned at the impact it is having on his self esteem. He is a kind, bright boy who knows right from wrong. When he is consumed with anxiety he becomes very violent, particularly towards me and and his brother. Once he has come out the other side of the rage (usually by falling into my arms and sobbing for some time) he starts self loathing about what a horrible person he is. He doesn’t want to hurt anyone but just can’t help himself. He asked me to take him to a hospital to be fixed recently. It breaks my heart to see his anxiety rule him. We have tried breathing exercises with him when he is calm but he just can’t seem to access anything when he is in full anxiety mode. We all walk on eggshells and it has such a detrimental effect to the whole family.

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Angie

We are in a similar situation. The anxiety rears it’s ugly head when he may become embarrassed or thinks he is in trouble. Today his coach was not supportive and told him he can’t play until he apologizes to everyone and that no coach would ever put up with that type of behavior. My heart breaks for my son. He’s only 9.

Reply
Karen Young

It’s so difficult to watch anxiety getting in the way like this for our kids isn’t it. If you can manage the anxiety, you can manage the aggression. It’s really important that your son understands why he’s doing what he’s doing – not to excuse it, but so he can take responsibility for behaving in a way that is better for him and the people around him. Try the strategies in the article with him, but be patient. If his anxiety has been driving his behaviour for a while, it may take a little while to ‘retrain’ his brain to respond in a different way, but a absolutely it can be done. In relation to what happened to his game, if it is something that hurt the team or another player, it sounds as though an apology may be important so he can regain the respect of his team-mates. Explain to him that an apology isn’t to shame him, but to strengthen him. It’s brave and it’s right, and he will be respected for it. Then, he can work on managing his anger so it doesn’t keep hurting him.

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Courtney

Could Anxiety still be the cause when it feels like our daughter only has anger meltdowns at home. Is it a build up for the day and now she is in a safe place? They seem to come from nowwhere, she often can’t explain her thinking. She says crazy things like “so I don’t get to eat until I’m 7” or “so I never will play again outside” They seem unexplained. She does have anxiety in many situations–doesn’t like to be by herself, scared to use the restroom (even at home) by herself, won’t lay by herself at night, etc. However, it is very rare, maybe 3 times in her 6 years that she has had a major meltdown in public. At home, they happen more often. Sometimes peeks–3-4 in a week and then 3-4 weeks without any. We can’t seem to find patterns of what causes them or doesn’t. Could this be the cause?

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Karen Young

Anxiety could certainly be behind the behaviour your are describing, but it there could also be other things driving them – your exhaustion, stress, or because your daughter is working so hard during the day to be attentive, focussed, and to work hard, and do the right thing, that by the time she gets home, she is able to ‘let go’ and relax. It’s not possible to say for certain. I know it can be confusing and frustrating when you’re the parent trying to deal with this behaviour. If you have ruled out any other physical cause, be open to the possibility that it might be something else, such as anxiety.

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Andrea

Hi Courtney, I know you wrote this comment years ago, but I’m wondering if you ever had a diagnosis, saw an improvement, etc? My 6 year old daughter is struggling with these EXACT symptoms, but really only at home, and your comment is one of the only ones I saw mention that.

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Nani

Thank you for this article.

We are raising a grandson who has had anxiety since he was a toddler. When we walk into a crowded place you can see his little body tense and he often puts his hands over his ears. We recently had an independent evaluation done and he was diagnosed with moderate Sensory Processing Dysfunction along with some other lesser issues. We have started OT and are hoping it helps.

He is now in 1st grade and each day is a struggle. Less that two months into the school year and he has had his color changed most days for ‘bad behavior’. The more pressure the more he acts out. He panics over spelling tests even when he can spell all the words easily. He has low self esteem due to this issue he does not fully understand. So far I believe the staff feels like we are making excuses when we are simply trying to explain what we have observed. We feel a bit like we are struggling to keep his head above water most days. We are so worried about how he will deal with standardized testing.

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Karen Young

What you are describing makes a lot of sense. The risk is that at school he is being asked to perform and behave in ways that his brain isn’t quite ready for – it will get there, but all children develop at different rates. The problem with punishing him for this, is that it’s confusing and unhelpful as it starts to nurture in him a mindset that he is ‘naughty’ or ‘less than’, when really what he is, is not ready yet. He is so lucky to have you. All kids need at least one adult in their lives who believe in the potential that is in them and love them unconditionally. Here is an article that might help him understand what happens to him when he feels anxious. It might help him to understand so that he can feel as though managing it is more within his control, and that it happens to lots of children (and adults) when they feel anxious. His brain is healthy and strong – it just needs time to give him what he needs to perform in ways that are required in school https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/. Your little man has greatness in him. I hope you are able to find the support you need within the school to help him discover it.

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Shannon

Thank you for this article. My son had transitional anxiety that manifest as anger at the start of first year last year. Working with the school to come up with a plan seemed to help.Unfortunately, the plan doesn’t seem to have been communicated effectively to his new teachers. It’s the third day of school and I’ve already had two emails from teachers about his behavior which seems to have stemmed from an encounter with a fellow student that made him angry. What’s new this year, it seems, is that when he gets angry he tries to bang his head on the wall or punch the wall.. He doesn’t do this at home – mostly, I think, as he is an only child….?

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Karen Young

The beginning of the school year can understandably be an anxious time for kids. Hopefully once your son’s teachers understand what’s happening for him, they will be able to give him what he needs to thrive in their classroom.

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Barb

We’ve just had a baby and my 5-year-old (formerly an only child) has been behaving more aggressively, which is very uncharacteristic of her. This article both gives me insight, but also breaks my heart to imagine what might be going through her head.

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Amanda

Hi Karen,

I think your book would be really beneficial for my 5 year old son as we’re at a loss of words to help him. His anxiety has now turned into anger and at times he can sound quite rude when he responds while in the “fight” stage, where his whole body tenses up and he talks negatively a lot of the time (I can’t, it’s too hard, it’s just a really bad day…EVERYDAY) And there are ALWAYS tears. He is triggered by noises, changes in his routine, not being first in line, when a rule isn’t being followed the way he was taught, etc. He has no official diagnoses as mental health wait times are outrageous here, but it does run in our family so we are aware of the signs. I was just wondering when or if your book will be available at a Chapters or Indigo store in Canada in the near future as online ordering with the cost of shipping is not an option for us at the moment?

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Karen Young

Hi Amanda – I’m sorry to hear your little man is struggling at the moment. In relation to the book, it’s really up to the bookstores to order through the distributor or the publisher. Not sure if this will help but the shipping cost is set by the shipping company (DHL) and is calculated by the gram. The softcover is about half the weight of the hardcover, so the cost of shipping is less. I hope this helps.

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Ellie

Hello. I’m having trouble with a child who is about a year and 10 months. She is very aggressive towards other children in my class, usually during high energy ( possibly stressful) activities like dance class or free play. She seems not to like other children crying or being too close to her however she does have a few friends she doesn’t attack. She is a very sweet friendly girl and parents say she is very calm st home. Before she is aggressive sometimes it looks like her face changes and perhaps pupils dialate, which might make sense if her brain is going into fight mode. She is very young and doesn’t seem to understand she is hurting people. Any advice? Thanks!!

Reply
Karen Young

It’s very important that we don’t expect children to behave in ways that their brains aren’t developmentally ready for. At such a young age the empathy and self control centres are still a way off. In the meantime, gently guide her towards the correct responses by validating her feelings ‘You seem angry. I understand that. Sharing can be difficult sometimes can’t it.’ Then direct a more appropriate response. Remember too that young children don’t have the words to express themselves or to effectively ask for what they need so they will often resort to making their needs and feelings known through behaviours, often inappropriate ones. Though this can be disruptive it’s not at all unusual or pathological. There are many different versions of normal and kids will grow and develop in their own time.

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The need to feel connected to, and seen by our people is instinctive. 

THE FIX: Add in micro-connections to let them feel you seeing them, loving them, connecting with them, enjoying them:

‘I love being your mum.’
‘I love being your dad.’
‘I missed you today.’
‘I can’t wait to hang out with you at bedtime 
and read a story together.’

Or smiling at them, playing with them, 
sharing something funny, noticing something about them, ‘remembering when...’ with them.

And our adult loves need the same, as we need the same from them.♥️
Our kids need the same thing we do: to feel safe and loved through all feelings not just the convenient ones.

Gosh it’s hard though. I’ve never lost my (thinking) mind as much at anyone as I have with the people I love most in this world.

We’re human, not bricks, and even though we’re parents we still feel it big sometimes. Sometimes these feelings make it hard for us to be the people we want to be for our loves.

That’s the truth of it, and that’s the duality of being a parent. We love and we fury. We want to connect and we want to pull away. We hold it all together and sometimes we can’t.

None of this is about perfection. It’s about being human, and the best humans feel, argue, fight, reconnect, own our ‘stuff’. We keep working on growing and being more of our everythingness, just in kinder ways.

If we get it wrong, which we will, that’s okay. What’s important is the repair - as soon as we can and not selling it as their fault. Our reaction is our responsibility, not theirs. This might sound like, ‘I’m really sorry I yelled. You didn’t deserve that. I really want to hear what you have to say. Can we try again?’

Of course, none of this means ‘no boundaries’. What it means is adding warmth to the boundary. One without the other will feel unsafe - for them, us, and others.

This means making sure that we’ve claimed responsibility- the ability to respond to what’s happening. It doesn’t mean blame. It means recognising that when a young person is feeling big, they don’t have the resources to lead out of the turmoil, so we have to lead them out - not push them out.

Rather than focusing on what we want them to do, shift the focus to what we can do to bring felt safety and calm back into the space.

THEN when they’re calm talk about what’s happened, the repair, and what to do next time.

Discipline means ‘to teach’, not to punish. They will learn best when they are connected to you. Maybe there is a need for consequences, but these must be about repair and restoration. Punishment is pointless, harmful, and outdated.

Hold the boundary, add warmth. Don’t ask them to do WHEN they can’t do. Wait until they can hear you and work on what’s needed. There’s no hurry.♥️
Recently I chatted with @rebeccasparrow72 , host of ABC Listen’s brilliant podcast, ‘Parental as Anything: Teens’. I loved this chat. Bec asked all the questions that let us crack the topic right open. Our conversation was in response to a listener’s question, that I expect will be familiar to many parents in many homes. Have a listen here:
https://www.abc.net.au/listen/programs/parental-as-anything-with-maggie-dent/how-can-i-help-my-anxious-teen/104035562
School refusal is escalating. Something that’s troubling me is the use of the word ‘school can’t’ when talking about kids.

Stay with me.

First, let’s be clear: school refusal isn’t about won’t. It’s about can’t. Not truly can’t but felt can’t. It’s about anxiety making school feel so unsafe for a child, avoidance feels like the only option.

Here’s the problem. Language is powerful, and when we put ‘can’t’ onto a child, it tells a deficiency story about the child.

But school refusal isn’t about the child.
It’s about the environment not feeling safe enough right now, or separation from a parent not feeling safe enough right now. The ‘can’t’ isn’t about the child. It’s about an environment that can’t support the need for felt safety - yet.

This can happen in even the most loving, supportive schools. All schools are full of anxiety triggers. They need to be because anything new, hard, brave, growthful will always come with potential threats - maybe failure, judgement, shame. Even if these are so unlikely, the brain won’t care. All it will read is ‘danger’.

Of course sometimes school actually isn’t safe. Maybe peer relationships are tricky. Maybe teachers are shouty and still using outdated ways to manage behaviour. Maybe sensory needs aren’t met.

Most of the time though it’s not actual threat but ’felt threat’.

The deficiency isn’t with the child. It’s with the environment. The question isn’t how do we get rid of their anxiety. It’s how do we make the environment feel safe enough so they can feel supported enough to handle the discomfort of their anxiety.

We can throw all the resources we want at the child, but:

- if the parent doesn’t believe the child is safe enough, cared for enough, capable enough; or

- if school can’t provide enough felt safety for the child (sensory accommodations, safe peer relationships, at least one predictable adult the child feels safe with and cared for by),

that child will not feel safe enough.

To help kids feel safe and happy at school, we have to recognise that it’s the environment that needs changing, not the child. This doesn’t mean the environment is wrong. It’s about making it feel more right for this child.♥️
Such a beautiful 60 second wrap of my night with parents and carers in Hastings, New Zealand talking about building courage and resilience in young people. Because that’s how courage happens - it builds, little bit by little bit, and never feeling like ‘brave’ but as anxiety. Thank you @healhealthandwellbeing for bringing us together happen.♥️

…

Original post by @healhealthandwellbeing:
🌟 Thank You for Your Support! 🌟

A huge thank you to everyone who joined us for the "Building Courage and Resilience" talk with the amazing  Karen Young - Hey Sigmund. Your support for Heal, our new charity focused on community health and wellbeing, means the world to us!

It was incredible to see so many of you come together while at the same time being able to support this cause and help us build a stronger, more resilient community.

A special shoutout to Anna Catley from Anna Cudby Videography for creating some fantastic footage Your work has captured the essence of this event perfectly ! To the team Toitoi - Hawke's Bay Arts & Events Centre thank you for always making things so easy ❤️ 

Follow @healhealthandwellbeing for updates and news of events. Much more to come!
 

#Heal #CommunityHealth #CourageAndResilience #KarenYoung #ThankYou

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