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

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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.

 

 


 

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166 Comments

Zoe

A brilliant read for a parent who is currently struggling with their child’s anxiety related anger. Now I just need to get him to sit and listen to your advice and hope that it works! Thankyou!

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks Zoe! Yes it’s getting them to listen isn’t it. I always love the car for that. No escape! Or bedtime – anything to stay up later. Don’t worry if it doesn’t happen in the first conversation. Every time you chat about it, something will get in. I hope it helps!

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Damiana

Beautiful reply to Zoe’s comment. you can often tell when the recipient comments in the information seeking third person and ends up in first person frustration as they try to operationalize the message.

This is why my first sessions with clients begins with Brain science 101, stuffed toys, pictures of the brain and actual 3-D models of the brain. Your website is so powerful, keep up the good work!

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Sylvia B

Thanks for this great article, which my husband read and liked on FB and which prompted me to read it too. We are so conscious of our daughter’s anxiety and know it’s the root of her flare-ups, but I especially like your advice of not treating it as bad behavior but as anxiety. This is especially hard to do around other people and other kids, if it seems like she is screaming at them and that we are sympathetic to it.

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Hey Sigmund

Sylvia, I completely understand. It’s hard enough to deal with flare-ups when there is no-one else around but when there’s an audience it’s so much harder! Another way to think of this is as two separate issues. One is the flare-up and one is the way your daughter might be relating to other kids. It sounds as though both are being driven by anxiety. Your daughter doesn’t want to do the wrong thing. Respond to the anxiety first and this will soothe the flare-up. Then, respond to any social fallout. Kids with anxiety are often great at understanding their impact on other people, but in the thick of anxiety, their impact on other kids won’t matter because their brains are telling them they are in danger. Once she has settled, let her know that you understand why she has felt the way she has, and why she might have behaved this way, but then encourage her to think about what it might have been like for other kids. This is something that will really nurture her emotional intelligence and empathy, which is probably already strong anyway – it’s just that anxiety overwhelms it. It’s completely okay to be sympathetic and supportive of your daughter. When she has been triggered by her anxiety it will feel awful for her. That’s when she needs your comfort most of all. Once she feels the connection from you, and her anxiety has eased, then you are in a perfect position to encourage empathy and help her to find ways to put right whatever might have gone wrong during her flare-up. You’ll always have so much more influence when she is calm and connected to you – she will be getting exactly what she needs in terms of her anxiety and also the guidance that all kids need in relation to how to respond to other kids. It sounds as though you and your husband have a lot of clarity around your daughter’s behaviour and anxiety, and that you are giving her exactly what she needs in relation to this. Keep doing that and try not to worry about what other people might be thinking. I know how hard that can be!

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Susie

Thanks so much. I have an anxious 15yo and this goes a long way to explain so much of her anxiety and that she has had it ALL her life. The next question is how to harness the power and put it to good use.

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Hey Sigmund

Susie you’re absolutely right – kids with anxiety have such incredible strengths and when you can harness the power of that, they’ll fly. The key is teaching them how to manage their anxiety. Once they are able to do that, their strengths will really shine.

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Nicole

Thank you so much for this article! As a struggling parent trying to understand what my child is going through but also trying to get others to understand that it is not as simple as punishing them for their bad behavior. It’s really hard to get support from others.

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Hey Sigmund

Absolutely! It’s never as simple as punishing bad behaviour. A brain in fight or flight needs to feel comforted, safe and secure, not punished. For people who don’t understand anxiety, or who have not had experience with it before, it’s tempting to make all difficult behaviour about ‘bad behaviour’, and it’s not. The people in your life who can understand this are gold! Try not to let the other ones rattle you. You know your child better than anyone else and you know what they need. Trust your intuition on this.

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Kellie

I wish I had have been able to read this article many years ago!!! My adult son fits this picture description perfectly…. I’m hoping there’s still time. I guess it’s just people skills and validation when dealing with adults (and of course managing my own anxiety when faced with an angry person!!!) Thank you always for your insights.

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Hey Sigmund

Kellie there is always time! Thankfully we’re starting to understand more and more about anxiety but it’s never too late to use the information to create a healthier, stronger way of relating to the world. You have valuable insights that can strengthen your son’s capacity to deal with his own anxiety. We never stop growing.

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Carol

This is a really useful well written article. I work in adult mental health and will use this as a way to explain things to those who struggle with complex terminology.

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks Carol. I pleased you found the article and hope it is able to help people you work with. Being able to understand why we do what we do can be such a powerful thing.

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Jo

This sounds like it could be affecting my son, he is often more difficult in new place’s and can quickly lose his temper when he is disappointed or feels injustice or threat. Is it worth talking to his doctor about a behaviour therapy?

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Hey Sigmund

Whether or not to seek therapy depends on how much disruption your son’s behaviour is causing to his relationships, his schooling and his happiness, and how long it has been going on for. If you feel that the problem is getting bigger than can be managed at home, if it is getting worse, or if it is significantly impacting his day to day life, getting support from a therapist can be a helpful way to go.

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D Barker

I’ve found your article incredibly useful for my work and my personal interest. Thanks.

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Michelle

Really interesting read, do you find these techniques work for children on the autism spectrum? My son has a ASD diagnosis he is very high functioning but has a lot of outbursts in school running off into the school field or throwing chairs tables. They tell me he’s very much in control as he will talk to them when they are trying to get him to come in yet I know he’s on another level when I’m brought into these situations. All I can do is stay calm and wait for him to ” come down” once we leave the school grounds it’s like it never happened but anything can set him off I’m sure it’s anxiety. If these techniques do word with children on the spectrum could you please recommended any good books ect? Thanks ?

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Hey Sigmund

If your son is verbal, the techniques wouldn’t hurt. For any child, understanding why they get angry, mindfulness, and the ‘name it to tame it’ strategy are all ways to strengthen their self-awareness, and to build their emotional intelligence and their capacity to deal with big feelings. As for books, I’m not sure of any specific to autism that would be helpful in these situations – I’m sure there are plenty out there but I’m just not aware of them. Let’s see if anyone else out there knows of any.

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ordinary_mumma

There’s a brilliant book called ‘The Red Beast” written for children on the spectrum x

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lois

I liked this information and it makes so much sense. The only thing is I can see it working well for children who are old enough to understand the explanation, but i’d love to have some tips and ideas for dealing with anxiety in a young child. Is there anything you can suggest? Thanks

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Hey Sigmund

Yes for sure. Here is an article with strategies for younger kids https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-very-young-kids-11-ways-to-make-a-difference/. Also, if your little person is able to do some of the mindfulness exercises in this article, it will be a great practice to get into https://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-for-children-fun-effective-ways-to-strengthen-mind-body-spirit/. They don’t need to understand why – the activities are fun anyway and will be strengthening them in terms of managing their anxiety.

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Rebecca

Really helpful article from a confused mum! Been struggling to understand my daughters angry behaviour recently. The article is well written and will help me to explain to her what’s going on in that little brain!
Thanks

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks Rebecca. I’m pleased it has helped make sense for you. Brains can seem to have a mind of their own sometimes can’t they!

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MichelleF

Hi, I don’t have kids but this article was helpful for me with my own anxiety which, unfortunately, usually manifests as anger.

I’ve already started the breathing techniques and I’m going to do the brave thoughts too. I’m far too old to be a slave to this anxiety thing any longer … so, thank you.

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Reinette

Can you help and advise on anxiety resulting in stuttering in a six year old boy.

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Lisa P

This is a great article. I’m an occupational therapist working mostly with children (and families) with sensory over-responsivity (SOR) and anxiety. There is a fair amount of research linking the 2, whether it be primary SOR leading to anxiety or vice versa (see below). I would love to see our fields coming together on this! We use most of the strategies that you suggest, but we also talk with kids and families about the role of sensory responsivity when explaining where anxiety comes from.

Thanks for the article!

I’d be happy to provide full reference if you’re interested.

Ben-Sasson, Cermak, Orsmond, Carter, & Fogg, 2000; Green & Ben-Sasson, 2010; Green, Ben-Sasson, Soto & Carter, 2012; Lane, Reynolds, & Dumenci, 2012; Lane, Reynolds, & Thacker, 2010

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Cathy

Do you have any information to share regarding toddlers 2-3 year olds. I’m a toddler teacher at this age the children don’t really have the verbal skills or maturity to talk about their feeling yet. I have several children in my class that have many (5 or more) meltdowns each day. Thank you for any strategies I could try.

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Hey Sigmund

Cathy there are some strategies in this article that might be helpful for your little people https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-very-young-kids-11-ways-to-make-a-difference/. It’s important work you’re doing. Keep in mind that at age 2-3, it’s really normal for kids to have tantrums. One reason is because they are trying to establish themselves as separate people, which is why they will sometimes say no and push against limits just for the sake of it. Another reason is because they don’t have the words yet to express what they need or how they feel about something. It’s really normal for them to get frustrated with this and to throw a tantrum. When this happens, the ‘name it to tame it’ strategy can be really helpful. It will help them to feel understood and will start to give them the words they need to make sense of things.

Also, it’s never too early to start talking to kids about ‘being the boss of their brain’. It’s such an important skill, and even if they don’t understand the concept yet, which they probably won’t, they will still be taking in bits and pieces and being exposed to language and ideas that will eventually expand their emotional literacy and their emotional intelligence. Try the mindful jar in this article https://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-for-children-fun-effective-ways-to-strengthen-mind-body-spirit/. It’s a fun way to introduce them to the idea that they can be the boss of their brain when their big thoughts and feelings take over (it’s explained in the article). They’ll have fun making it, and it might be a way to help them find calm and before things get too big.

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Evelyn

I think my 7 yr old grandson may have anxiety. He is the youngest of 3. He gets upset when the older kids take things away from him and tell him hes doing it wrong.. When he isnt wrong… He just has to think about it. He gets good grades. Is this anxiety or just being agrevated.

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Hey Sigmund

It’s impossible to say. It may be that your grandson has developed a very adaptive way of having himself heard with his older siblings. It’s very understandable that a 7 year old would get upset when older kids try to boss him around. He’s establishing his own limits and his own boundaries and that’s okay. This alone doesn’t necessarily suggest anxiety. Most kids go through stages where they test the limits on others and see what they can get away with in their relationships and in getting their needs met. It’s an important part of the way they develop their social skills. The clue as to whether or not this is anxiety would lie in whether or not there are other symptoms – does he avoid certain situations? Does he flare up unnecessarily? Does he flare up with kids his own age or just with older kids? Does he tend to worry about things? Does he ever get clingy? It is not unusual for the youngest child to find their own way to be heard above their older, more assertive siblings, but this doesn’t necessarily indicate anxiety. The key is whether or not there are other symptoms. So much grey and not a lot of black and white. It can be confusing, I know!

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Ashley

I see the name the emotion for the child everywhere! But whenever I try to name a negative emotion for my 6.5 year old gifted son it just makes him more mad! And it makes the situation worse for us. He also refuses to let me help him with breathing when he is getting anxious. It also makes it worse for him. He starts hyperventilating. I calmly remind him to take long breaths but it doesn’t help. The only thing that gets him to calm down is if he goes to his room and gets all that extra energy out you mentioned in the beginning of this article. It’s like he has to physically do the fight or flight first. When we talk to him about it later he can tell you what he should do and he can demonstrate the breathing techniques but once he’s in that state he just can’t seem to do any of it.

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Hey Sigmund

Ashley, unless your son has practiced breathing, it will be too hard for him to do in the middle of his anxiety. I expect he is getting frustrated with being asked to do something that he just doesn’t have the resources in the moment to do. Strong, deep breathing is a learned response and it needs to be practiced daily during calm moments to teach the brain how to access it when there are limited mental resources available to try something new. Otherwise, it will be too difficult for him to do when is brain is busy is fight or flight.

In relation to naming the emotion, I can only speculate as to what is happening to upset him so much, but it may be that the emotion you are naming has negative meanings for your son. I’m not sure what word you’re using, but the word ‘anger’ for example, for your son might mean things like ‘out of control’ or ‘bad behaviour’. When he is calm, talk to him about the word he would use. Let him know that his feelings are completely okay and normal, which they are. It’s what he is doing with them that are causing the problem. To understand the meaning he is placing on the word, ask him what it means for him. So, if you are using the word, ‘angry’, ask him ‘What do you think about people when they get angry?’. This will start to reveal the meaning he takes from the word and it might give you a clue as to why he is getting upset. If getting rid of the energy physically is something that is working for him, let him keep doing that. Let him know that you can see he has found a really clever and safe thing to do with his anger (or whatever word he’s using for his feelings in that moment).

It might also be that there is another emotion that feels stronger for your son than the one you are naming. Anger is a secondary emotion, which means there is always another emotion underneath it. Anger will often feel like anger, but dig deep enough and there will always be something else there. In the case of anxiety, it will most likely be fear. Some kids will say they feel angry, some will say they feel something else, even though to the world it looks like anger. When your son is calm, ask him what he was feeling most of all – was he scared? Angry? Confused? Frustrated? Sad? He might not be able to name it, but if he can, that will make it easier for next time. Of course, if the strategy makes things worse for you, let it go. Not everything will work for every child. At 6.5 he might not have the words to tell you why it annoys him so much – he might just know that it does, and that’s okay.

It’s great that he has found a way to deal with his anger in a safe way though, but doing something physically active. It makes a lot of sense that he needs to get physical in order to calm down. Anxiety is the way the brain energises the body for physical activity (fight or flight). Problems come when there is not fight or flight and the neurochemicals build up. Your son has found a way to bring his fight or flight response to a natural end, and that’s an adaptive, healthy thing to do. The problem is when he is unable be something physically active, such as when he is in school. This is when he will need his breathing, but first he will need to understand why it’s important (it neutralises the fight or flight response), and he will need to practice it when he is calm, so he can access it more automatically when he needs to.

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Ace

This behavior also applies to adults in social anxiety situations. I recently had this ah-ha. Wish though, I had read this article when my child was younger.

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Tam

This is brilliant and I believe all parents should read and take on board! My husband and i have a son 12yrs old who is a true example of all you’ve explained and because we didnt see his anger and aggression as underlying anxiety he is now dealing with OCD. I wouldnt want any parent to have to see their child go through this. Seeing the early warning signs is vital. If I could help any parent see this or be more aware I would…Thankyou that you are doing this!

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Hey Sigmund

Tam it’s so easy to miss anxiety when it is disguised as anger. It’s just not the first thing we tend to expect when we see our kids being angry. You are definitely not alone there. It’s such an important conversation that we’re having and adding your voice and your own experience will be help to keep it going and to expand awareness on this. Thank you!

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John

Thank you for this illuminating and well-informed article. I can’t think of anything quite as complex and seemingly convoluted as the manifestation of anxiety in the human organism; evolutionary impulses geared toward self-preservation and survival mix with the narrative provided by culture to produce superficially hopeless situations and circumstances for children and adults alike. I use “superficial” because there are indeed underlying causative factors which conspire together to produce this complex of behaviors…identifying what they are can be tremendously difficult, if not patently impossible for most. If we can’t discern what’s really going on, then we can’t begin to search for the meaning we need to adopt coping strategies.

I write not from the perspective of a parent, but rather from the point of view of an adult survivor of childhood anxiety. It doesn’t end with the commencement of adulthood; at least in my case, it carried on in the form of a demon that never left my side. For me, it was a matter of needing to withdraw and isolate myself from others; I consider myself fortunate that aggression wasn’t part of what I struggled with. However, while anxiety might manifest in somewhat predictable ways, it certainly isn’t monotypic in presentation.

Adults themselves can benefit from the knowledge and coping strategies you have shared here; even moreso for our children, for whom it is never too late. My heart is gladdened by the thought of parents who can benefit from this.

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks very much John. And thank you for sharing some of your own experience with anxiety. Anxiety is such a powerful force and it must have been frightening as a child to not really understand what was happening. Thankfully we are learning more and more about it, so we are in a better position to give children the support they need. I hope you are in a better place now.

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Gaby

Absolutely WONDERFUL article and description of anxiety!! As a mental health professional and a parent of 2 children with special needs, I couldn’t have explained Anxiety better! I’m looking forward to reading more. Thank you!!

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Caro

Gosh, you couldn’t have written a better description of my son if we’d had a private consultation! Fantastic advice and explaining what’s happening to him is an excellent idea – I have also forwarded the article to the special needs team at his school so that we are all working from the same page.

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JL

Hey Sigmund,
We have three anxious children and the dynamics in our home are unbearable most of the time because at any given moment one of the kids are kicking into high gear because of what another child is doing. We have spent countless hours and $$ in therapy and psychiatrist offices. Just recently my oldest daughter was diagnosed with anxiety but none of the many therapists have ever approached it in this manner. Your article sounds so reasonable and hits the nail on the head with what’s going on with our kids. Could it be this simple (not easy)? We are definitely going to try and use these techniques with our children but let me ask you a question.

What if the child is very stubborn and refuses to talk or cooperate? It’s almost as if our kids feel like they don’t need any help and there is no problem. Talking to them about their feelings or trying to explain what’s happening seems to aggravate them even more.

Also, would you say most anger stems from anxiety of some sort? Whether it’s fear of being hurt or fear of not getting what they want or fear of failing?

Thanks so much. We really need something like this.

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Hey Sigmund

I’m so pleased you’ve found this article and that it has brought some clarity for you. Anger is a secondary emotion, which means that there is always another emotion underneath it. It might be anxiety, jealousy, fear, sadness, confusion, insecurity – anything. If your daughter has been diagnosed with anxiety it makes a lot of sense that this is what is driving her anger. If your daughter doesn’t want to talk when she’s in the midst of her anger or anxiety, that’s okay. When you respond to her, respond to the anxiety, not the anger. Here is an article that will help with that https://www.heysigmund.com/dealing-with-anxiety-in-children-calm-anxious-brain/. Remember, her anxiety has been protecting her in this way for a long time, so it might take a while to shift it, but be patient. It will be worth it.

If your kids do something you don’t like, there will be no point speaking to them about their behaviour when they are in high emotion. The part of the brain that can receive the information will be ‘offline’. If you believe the behaviour is being driven by anxiety, respond to the anxiety (with the strategies in the article) then when things are calm, talk about the behaviour. ‘I know that you don’t want to do the wrong thing and that’s why I want to talk to you about what happened.’

Take this opportunity to nurture empathy and self-awareness. ‘What you think it was like for me/your sister/brother/whoever when you did that?’ ‘What do you think was happening for you? I really want to understand.’ If it is your daughter, let her know that nothing she says will get her into trouble. If there needs to be consequences, let them be for refusing to co-operate or talk about her behaviour, not for her anxiety. The idea is to make things as safe as you can for her to explore what’s going on, so that you can work on a plan – but she does have to take responsibility for this and may need some gentle boundaries around that. Part of the plan will involve the strategies in the article. Let her know that she won’t get into trouble for anything she says to you when she’s calm, or for feeling angry or anxious, but that she does have to take responsiblity for what she does with those feelings. Be really clear about what the problem is ‘You’re not in trouble for feeling angry. We all get angry and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not okay to swear/ yell/ [whatever the behaviour is – be really specific].’ If you need to, decide what the consequences will be for that so the boundaries are clear for everyone. Let her know that you understand why it’s happening, and that you want to talk to her about it so that she understands too, because there are other ways to be angry that won’t hurt her relationships or the people she cares about. Also ask her what she needs from you that can make things easier for her. Ask her if there is something that you’re doing or not doing that is upsetting her. I hope this helps. It can be a difficult thing to deal with because the behaviour on the outside hides so well the feelings that are driving at it, but be patient and keep at it – anything you do will make a difference.

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Anne

It sounds a lot like my 8 yo son, but his anger flares up when he feels he’s not in control. Is that anxiety or just a desire for control? I can see a lot of anxious behaviors in him, unnecessary worry about the future, and natural disasters, frustrations when confronted with something new, and he still sleeps with his baby blanket. He really shuts down when he gets in trouble or even when an adult raises their voice. He also has a very strong desire to take charge and be the boss. My husband thinks it’s just the need for control, but I think the need for control might be fueled by anxiety.

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Hey Sigmund

Anne it’s very possible that anxiety is fuelling your son’s need for control, particularly given the other behaviours you describe. The need for control is understandable with anxiety – it’s to manage the risk. It’s possible that in your son’s mind, as long as he is in control of things, there is less that can go wrong.

So, to answer your question, it’s possibly both anxiety and a desire for control. Thd job for your son now is to learn how to manage his need for control so that it doesn’t get in the way of his friendships. He has it in him to do this beautifully and the strategies in the article will help with that.

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