Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

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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164 Comments

Hey Sigmund

Yes Debbie, absolutely. If you are on a desktop or a laptop, there will be share buttons on the left hand side of the article. The green one at the bottom is for the printer. If you are on a mobile device, there will be a thin grey strip at the bottom with the words ‘Share this’. Click on that and it will expand. The printer button is the green one.

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Laura

This is a great read!
My son is almost 3 and non verbal.
At the moment he has a real fear of the doors in his playgroup, the fear is so great he wont play with a single thing, instead he stands there looking petrified or he’ll stay in the outdoor part.

He gets really upset and lashes out when I tell him we are going there, I know it’s because he is anxious but I want to keep him socialised as much as possible.
I am always by his side there and always take him away from the doors and encourage him to play but the fear is too great.
I can’t reconcile with him or ask him to explain why he is so scared because he doesn’t understand.
Do you have any tips on how to help me calm him?

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Hey Sigmund

I would say that the most important thing to establish first is that there is nothing underlying that is causing him to lash out. If he is almost 3 and non-verbal, this may be completely normal, but it might be worth making sure. Kids develop at all different stages – some later than others, but it’s always best to make sure they’re on track. Given that he is only 3, he is still working on ways to make himself understood. For 3 year olds, the next best thing to words is to make it clear how they feel through their feelings, and that is what your son is doing. It’s curious that it is only the doors in his plagroup. Has something happened previously? Has he been scared by something that has come through the door? Maybe by someone unexpectedly? He may remember the feelings of fear even though he might not remember the initial incident. Here is an article about fears and phobias that may help https://www.heysigmund.com/phobias-and-fears-in-children/

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Cindy

I found this article great. The fact that I think this is exactly what happens to me when I ‘lose it’….is the fact that I identify with the knee-jerk reaction to anxiety…comes out like a tantrum. And I am a stressed out 74 year old. Interesting. Thanks so much. Very enlightening.

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Hey Sigmund

Cindy I’m so pleased this article was able to bring some clarity for you. Your response makes a lot of sense, particularly if you are stressed. Even as adults anxiety can absolutely come out as anger, particularly in times of stress when emotional resources are already stretched.

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Mat

Seconded. I’m in my thirties and just figuring out that because of my childhood my “fight” response is ALWAYS on. The strangest things set me off and anxiety is constant. Luckily, I have found great resources for dealing with it and I appreciate your article. Thinking that my children feel what I feel makes my heart hurt for them.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Mat the wisdom and insight you have gained from your own experience will be invaluable for your children. You will be a wonderful support for them. We know so much more now and we’re learning more all the time about ways to strengthen the brain and calm down the fight or flight response. Mindfulness is one thing that we have learned is so powerful against anxiety because of the way it changes and strengthens the brain. This is a relatively new discovery and no doubt there will be plenty more. Because of the discoveries that are being made, there will hopefully increasingly be new ways to manage your anxiety and take it back to small enough – for you and your children.

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Shelly

This sounds just like my 6 yo son. He has a diagnosis of adhd/odd but we think it is something entirely different. His actions are not intentional and his main issue is tantrums. In school he will have a tantrum if he feels that he is going to be in trouble..he is so overly worried about the impending consequences that it fuels the tantrum. He also chews his fingers non-stop. And blurts out non stop. After reading your article, I am inclined to think that he is just anxious. We have always done the breathing to try and help him through as well as talking through his emotions but it has been 3 years and I am afraid it is getting worse. Thank you for the walk through/explanations in your article. Your suggestions are helpful!

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Hey Sigmund

Shelly it sounds as though your little man is trying so hard to do the right thing. It also sounds as though you are doing a wonderful job of giving him the strategies and support he needs to do this. Keep going and if you keep feeling as though things aren’t getting better, it might be an idea to get some outside support. Sometimes things need a little boost to set them moving in the right direction.

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Patrice

Sounds like my exactly like not 6 year old!!!! It’s tough going. I’m worn out by the constant worry and dealing with complaints from teachers and criticism from family and friends.

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Christi

Thank you so much for this article. All this time I thought my son was just angry but I believe now he may have significant anxiety driving his behaviors.

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Jae

Thank-you for this. I have a 9 year old with ASD who is very bright and mostly quite sociable (in a controlled environment). He has been known to fly off the handle and lash out at kids and adults at school, or run away from situations.
This only happens when he’s stressed about things beyond his (and our) control but has sadly worked against him.
Despite our telling schools this is the case, they have refused to entertain the possibility. They say that because he had shown that he can “fit in”, that his actions must be deliberate, that it is our fault as parents for not controlling him and that because we have used every means of description possible in relating this to them, apart from key words like anxiety and sensory issues, that we haven’t in fact told them anything at all.
There have been more exclusions than I want to think about, all of which could have been avoided if they’d only listened.
The situation has become so ridiculous that we have had to start homeschooling.
But back to my original point. Thank-you. This article has given us a positive way forward.

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Kelly

Jae,
Your son sounds just like mine. He just finished Kindergarden and after having school and professional evaluations he qualified for an IEP for ED (emotional disability). Because of this label, we were able to get him into a different school where he will be in a specialized classroom with other students who also have this ED label. Ironically, I evaluated the classroom and it is ALL boys. School administrators and principals seem to want perfectly behaved children and for those of us with kids who are outside of the box, they simply do not want to deal with them. He has numerous out of school suspensions and I could spidered home schooling as well after being at such a loss of what to do with him: the school doest want him, professional counsellors couldn’t definitively diagnose him at his age, we didnt want to medicate him, it goes on and on. If you’re happy with homeschooling then that’s great, but you may want to look into your school district’s policy for getting the services your child is entitled to receive. Just thought I’d share my experience with you in case it helps. You’re certainly not alone!

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Deb

thanx for sharing your experience. my son is almost 10 and makes As but this year he has dropped to Ds in just 2 classes and been in in school auspension 3 times and in out of school susp 3 days! he is fighting with others and acting out and causing bothersome behaviours while teachers are trying to teach. he has told the school counselor he acted out on purpose to get removed from the room and go to ISS. i thought he might be getting bullied because he is obese but he says no and i ask him why he is doing all this and he simply says he doesnt know. stealing and lieing and continually lieing even after he knows we already know the truth! he says he wasnt fighting but 6 witness students say he has started it all! weekly coubseling sessions arent helping and meds only help some as he becomes resistant to them! anyways thanx for sharing! hearing others’ experiences is how i learn more and as a first time older mother i am struggling thru it with a 7 yo ASD/Dev.Delayed adopted son also!

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Craig

Hey Deb,
Thank you for sharing about your 10yo who has changed behaviour substantially this year. From what you have said, I’d like to suggest that your son may be looking for significance. Being larger may be contributing to the feeling of insignificance, but also being an A student can have its social down-side. Other kids can be jealous, and this often come out as groans like ‘of course Dexter has the answer!’.

He may be perceiving the cool kids as models, and if getting in trouble helps him break in he’ll do what it takes.

If you discover this is true, he is a normal child trying to fit in.

You could try some cognitive therapy based on logical outcomes. Help him to discover, rather than you tell him, about trustworthiness of people. Who you can trust.

Is there a movie, book or story that he likes. Can you walk through the relationships with him.

Another theory is that he could be developing his own version of reality. He has observed maybe a movie or book where the character who acts out becomes the hero. Again a significance journey.

I hope this helps you Deb.

Oh, and to encourage you, being older often means you bring a little more life experience into the family.

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Shawnda combs

My son’s story is very similar to your son’s. He is very bright. He is above grade level academically but socially can’t deal with the school environment . He is 7 and in the second grade. He was diagnosised with sensory issues at 3. Last year he was suspended 4 times and in school suspension the equivalent of 12 days…in the first grade!!!! He was diagnosised autistic in May of last yeAr. When he is not stressed he is able to communicate beautifully and can seem very mature/advanced but when stressed he resorts to fight or flight. We’ve been told many times. “He is to smart to act like this” or ” He isn’t sensory…he loves assemblies” The behavior coach told me last year that he didn’t have sensory issues ( as he was spinning in circles and chewing a whole in his slobber soaked shirt) that I was in denial and that his issues were behavioral. This Article explains what I couldn’t explain to them. Thank you

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Jo

What an excellent article. My little boy became very anxious last year as I was being treated for breast cancer. He has made great progress this year (now 5 years old), he is doing an extra kindy year, but I have noticed his manner in unfamiliar settings does now seem aggressive rather than obviously anxious. I guess this is his new defence system. This article makes a lot of sense, thanks.

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks Jo. The way your little man is responding sounds really understandable. Unfamiliar situations can often bring on a fight or flight response – even in adults. Sometimes it will be fight, sometimes flight. It’s great that he has made good progress. It sounds as though you are giving him exactly what he needs.

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Emily

Hiya, my daughter is 7 and we think has all the signs of anxiety, but not the physical signs i.e. clammy. She also has outbursts and tantrums with no apparent trigger i.e. just at home tying shoe laces, not when faced with the unknown. Shes clingy, shy, angry all the time, hard to reason with, shows no empathy. Does this still sound like anxiety?

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Hey Sigmund

Emily it definitely could be anxiety. Anxiety can often look as though it has no trigger and the symptoms you are describing certainly could have anxiety driving them.

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Trauma Mama S

Also! Not all kids find the deep slow breathing calming (in fact it gets my son more ramped up… he has some trauma issues that cause his anxiety for context as to why that may be).

Our kiddo finds “Dragon breaths” calming… Slow inhale with a very powerful and fast outgoing breath.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

It’s great that your son has found a way to breathe that works for him. Any way that slows down breathing (whether it’s slow in and slow out, or slow in and fast out) will help to restore the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide that is knocked out by short, shallow breathing that often comes with anxiety. When this balance is restored, the fight or flight chemicals will start to neutralise and the physical symptoms of anxiety will start to settle.

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Jennifer

This is a great article and opened my eyes to the possiblity that this might be causing my little 4 year old to act out at school. Her fight response has gotten so bad that asked her not to come back. I am not sure how I explain big emotions like this.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Jennifer here are a couple of articles that will help you explain anxiety and aggression. Little ones don’t act out big feelings because they’re ‘naughty’ or because they’re bad kids, but because they’re still learning how to manage those feelings or because there is something else that’s driving it, such as anxiety.

Here are the articles. Adjust the words to suit her age, and remember that the learning doesn’t have to happen all at once. In fact, at 4, it won’t. Just keep talking to her about it and let the message soak in. This is one about anger and how to be the boss of your brain https://www.heysigmund.com/raising-kids-emotionally-intelligent-kids-teens-anger-how-to-be-the-boss-of-your-brain/. This is one that explains anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/.

I also think it would be great for her to get into a mindfulness practice. Just start with a few minutes a day and build from there. A ton of research has shown that mindfulness can change the structure and function of the brain in ways that can help calm thoughts and feelings. Here is a link that will show you different ways to do that with her https://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-for-children-fun-effective-ways-to-strengthen-mind-body-spirit/.

Hope that helps.

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Shannon

My son deals with anger whenever he feels the threat of embarrassment real or imagined. At home we are able to minimize some of those triggers and give him a cooling off period before handling the things that come up in our daily life. It is still difficult at home but when he is at his school program I’m not there to talk him down before he melts down. I have tried to talk to his teacher about his responses being fueled by embarrassment and she insists he is deliberately defiant. We have seen a specialist who does not believe his acting out is deliberate or malicious. He has recently been diagnosed ADHD and has a hand weakness that our doctor thinks is contributing to his avoidance of participating in things he perceives as too difficult. Do you have any suggestions or resources we could share with his teacher to help him in the classroom setting? He is only there 1 day a week and we homeschool kindergarten. He just turned 6 and was a preemie so waited an extra year to start school but he is a big kid and looks like older more mature kids in his class.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Kids the age of your son aren’t deliberately defiant for the sake of it – there is generally something else going on. What your doctor has said makes a lot of sense. It sounds as though you are working hard to find the right support for your son out of the classroom, which is important. It can be difficult for teachers as there are other children they need to attend to. Regardless of what’s fuelling your son’s defiance, it is important for his sake that he feels the boundaries pushing up against his behaviour, but in ways that don’t feel shaming. This is a critical time for him to learn how to behave in ways that are socially appropriate. He can learn this, but it will take time and strong, steady guidance.

Are you able to get a report from the doctor to show the teacher? I would also suggest showing this article to the teacher and asking that the teacher work with you on a management plan for your son’s behaviour. Discuss with the teacher strategies for dealing with your son when the work feels too hard for him, and ways to deal with his aggression in ways that aren’t shaming, but which will guide him towards the right behaviour.

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Melissa Briceno

My daughter is 3 and seems to suffer from anxiety in a variety of ways. A big one is constipation. When something big happens like going to daycare or moving to the big girl room it locks her up for months. Another thing it is affecting her sleep. She does get aggressive especially with lack of sleep. She also gets clingy and acts frightened of things that normally do not bother her. How do I balance teaching her what is right (not hurting others, especially her 1 year old brother) and calming her anxiety. We already try to breathe in and out to calm down but sometimes she refuses.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Melissa see if this article can help with teaching your little one about right and wrong https://www.heysigmund.com/positive-discipline-for-anxious-and-non-anxious-kids/. She is still young, so she still has a lot to learn. Just keep gently reinforcing the messages you want her to hear. Over time they will settle in. She is still experimenting with the world and figuring out how things work. At 3, her empathy is still developing. One way to develop this is through storytelling. Read stories to her each day – research has found that children’s storybooks often have plenty of messages that can nurture empathy in kids. This will help her to internalise the messages you are giving her about not hurting others. In relation to her anxiety, here is an article with strategies to help younger kids with anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-very-young-kids-11-ways-to-make-a-difference/.

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James

This is an awesome article! My 6 year old is highly anxious over the idea of being anxious. His anxiety has turned into him hitting himself which is a major cause of anxiety not only for himself but also for our family.We have been practicing breathing techniques and positive affirmation for quite some time but definitely need to put more time into developing these skills while in “peaceful mode”.
Articles such as these not only let me know that we are not alone but give us hope that by using the appropriate resources we can get through this.
Thank You

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emily

I’m so grateful to have stumbled on this article. Our 10-year-old son has always struggled with anxiety, and the closer he gets to puberty, the more frequently (almost daily now) it manifests as meltdowns, outbursts, anger, aggression, etc. Fortunately, he is a kind, sensitive, empathetic and bright kid who behaves well at school and with friends. He’s well-loved by teachers, friends’ families, etc. He reserves the aggression for us at home (his parents and sister), and often directs it at himself as well. He gets so irrational, and just downright mean sometimes, that it starts to feel like he’s just becoming a complete jerk. I know it’s not really him, but it’s still hard not to find our own anger rise as he just unleashes in rudeness and total non-compliance.
He’s been in therapy and has the tools for handling his anxiety, but we’re starting to wonder if medication may be where we’re headed, as he just doesn’t seem able to call upon his tools or be talked through it. I’ll be re-reading this article again and again in hopes some of the tools start working!

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Emily. I’m pleased this was helpful for you. It’s not unusual for anxiety to worsen with adolescence, but that’s okay because it’s a great opportunity for them to learn really important life skills that will keep them strong moving forward. That’s what adolescence is about – being imperfect and falling and learning the valuable lessons they need to learn to be beautiful, healthy adults. And absolutely – they can be mean and irrational and high-tempered and all sorts of awful things. (We were too!) They can’t learn the lessons they need to learn if they’re perfect. Your little guy sounds like he is is very wonderful hands with you.

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Alice

I like that you explained how anxiety can be underlying many other emotions. Emotional Freedom Technique -EFT works with every emotion and is easy for parents to do with their children. It helps to acknowledge what the person is feeling and that they’re OK even though they feel like that, it’s easier to resolve something when we feel listened to.

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Lisa Visagie

I work with foster children and foster mothers, and I cannot tell you what an awesome article this is to share with them!
Anxiety manifests in our kids in SO many different ways, and we know their negative behavior is linked to anxiety linked to their traumatic pasts.
You’ve made some real high level understanding seem so simple…the ‘script’ you written is perfect to use just as is…ALL our Social Workers are getting a copy tomorrow! Thank you x

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Lisa thank you! I’m so pleased this is helpful for you and I hope it will be useful for your social workers. I can imagine there would be a lot of anxiety behind the behaviours of the kids you work with. THANK YOU to you and your team for the work you are doing. You would be the hope and the difference for so many of these kids x

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Matt Turner - Vida Relationships

Hi Karen,

As a family therapist and former school teacher, I think this is not only a fabulous article but a wonderful resource too!

I subscribe to your website and always find something insightful and useful in articles.

Thank you, and keep up the good work.

Matt.

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Rebecca

This is such a great article and has come to us at just the right time. We’re struggling with our gorgeous three year old who just cannot manage his emotions and tips into aggression really easily. I had thought he was an odd contradiction – a big brute who is quick to hit, seemingly full of brashness and aggression, and on the other side, hugely timid and shy in certain situations. Now it makes much more sense. I have a specific question for you about relationships between children. There is one child (age 6) that we see frequently who knows my son is quick to anger. He has worked out all the buttons to press and takes great joy in doing so. It is not pretty to see and I really feel for my son who tries really hard to control it, and on the one hand looks up to the older boy, but knows that he is being riled. Having read the article, I think my son gets anxious the minute this boy appears, and squares up to him as a form of pre-emptive self defence. Avoidance of the child isn’t an option. How can I equip my son with the tools to help deal with this child?
Thanks!

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Rebecca I think you’re on to something here. It certainly sounds like your son may be getting anxious when he sees this other boy. It makes a lot of sense. The thing is though, it’s very normal for little people to have a very loose grip on their emotions. Their brains are still developing and they don’t have the brain capacity to be able to understand and control all of their emotions at such a young age. It sounds as though the older boy may be taking advantage of this, whether he realises it or not. If this is something that is really getting in the way for your son, I would certainly be looking at speaking gently with the parents of the older boy about the specific behaviours you see that seem to be impacting on your son. It is a lot to expect a three year old to have to be the one to manage the relationship. Here is an article about some ways to respond to your little man’s anxiety in the moment https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-very-young-kids-11-ways-to-make-a-difference/.

On the plus side, this is an opportunity for your son to learn some really important skills that can carry him strongly for the rest of his life. Mindfulness is a great thing for all kids to do. There is plenty of research that has shown that it can really help kids to manage their big feelings because of the way it changes the structure and function of the brain. It will take time, but if you can get him started now, you’ll really be giving him something valuable. Here is an article with different ways to practice mindfulness https://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-for-children-fun-effective-ways-to-strengthen-mind-body-spirit/. Here is an article about helping kids to understand anger. It is a pitched at older kids, but you may be able to simplify some of the concepts when you feel that your son may be old enough to start understanding https://www.heysigmund.com/raising-kids-emotionally-intelligent-kids-teens-anger-how-to-be-the-boss-of-your-brain/.

I love that you are already thinking about how to build your son up and equip him to deal with difficult people. It’s never to early to start.

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Sharyne

Hi Karen. My 9yr old is suffering from anxiety and aggression due to the soon to be introduction of her father into her life for the first time and also the anxiety of having to spend time with him. As a result she is struggling to focus at school and she is getting really aggressive towards her little sister who is 6yrs old. She is hurting her little sister almost daily which is in turn teaching her sister to respond with agression also. The family law court will not allow her to see a psychologist for help managing her emotions as they say it will encourage her to not want to see her father and I am at my wits end trying to help her without having the tools to do so ss reassuring her isn’t enough and lately find myself feeling just as frustrated as she feels. This is ruining our family dynamic as 6 months ago we were a normal happy family. Please help us.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Sharyne this sounds like such a confusing time for your daughter. It’s not surprising that she is behaving anxiously and aggressively. Perhaps one of the most important things at this point is for her to feel as though she can talk about it. When there are big feelings in the right side of the brain, there can be some disconnection between the right and the left hemispherees. The left hemisphere is responsible for using language to give meaning to feelings and experiences. Both sides do a bit of each, but they are dominant in their own areas. We need both sides of the brain working strongly – the right to help us feel feelings and to prevent our world being cold and without ‘heart’, and we need the left to make sense of things and to stop us getting rueFeelings happen in the right side of the brain, and when there is some disconnection from the left, the feelings will feel big and confusing because there is nothing to make sense of them. It’s possible that there are all sorts of questions and feelings that your daughter hasn’t articulated, or that she isn’t able to articulate. If you can give her the space to talk about how she’s feeling, this starts to facilitate the reconnection between the right and the left hemispheres, which will eventually help her to make sense of what she is feeling. For some decades now, psychologists have been aware that naming a feeling starts to tame the nervous system, so the more room you can give her to talk about how she is feeling the better. Alternatively, if you can validate and name what she is feeling, this can also be helpful for her, ‘I can see how angry you are at […]. I understand that. I would be too. Would you like to tell me exactly what happened?’ – or something like that.

Something else that will be important for her is knowing that you are okay with her meeting her dad. If you can communicate that you are okay (even if you’re not at all sure), this can provide a solid foundation for her and help her to feel safe. If you are confused, it’s okay to say that. It might mean that you are picking up on her confusion and sharing that with her can be comforting for her, as long as you end things with letting her know that you’re completely okay. ‘It’s confusing isn’t it when you have to do things that you don’t want to do. I understand why it feels difficult for you, I really do. Talk to me about it whenever you want to. There’s absolutely nothing you can say that would be the wrong thing to say. Finally, here is an article that talks about how to help kids to manage big feelings https://www.heysigmund.com/how-to-self-regulate/. I hope that you are all able to find some comfort soon.

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Jodie

I have a 9 year old step son who I’ve been with his dad since he was 3. We have a very close relationship but I also have a 3 year old girl and a 7 month old boy . We have him week on week off so on my partners week off . He gets more than enough attentions and everything seems to be always revolved around him always he gets so horrible towards me and has actually hit me four times now because I haven’t giving him what he wants cos his so use to being on his own with his mum and getting one on one attention . He is always so rude and has no respect we have tried everything. We are strict we take things off him tell him off but his so smart back to us and treats us like a price of shit I’m over it !! He always says we don’t do anything with him but we always revolve everything around him how do we make him realise that he has more than beyond any other kid ? He has so much anger in him that he is starting to hurt my little three year old girl all the time to the point I don’t want him round her . But then at the same time all he wants is me . He is very much a mummy’s boy but so spoilt to we are at the point of giving up coz of his behaviour . I’m stressed , tired , have sores in my head and as many times I sit and explain to him how I feel what he is doing he listens then it just goes out the window the next day . It’s been like this for two years and I’m over it !!! I feel bad for this cos I love him
Very much but so exhausted 🙁

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Jodie Elliott

He gets treated so well on both sides of his family and is giving the world so there is no reason for him to be angry he gets more than enough attention don’t know if it is a single child thing cos his mum has no other kids I’m not sure but I’m getting to a point I dislike him coming round cos his hurting everyone and mean to me then wants my love 🙁

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

It sounds as though your stepson has a lot of love in his life, but that doesn’t change that he may miss you and your family when he isn’t with you, or miss his mother when he isn’t with her. It’s also very possible that your stepson is in a loyalty bind. This is very common with stepkids. It’s nothing to worry about, but it’s important to be aware that it might be happening and that it might be driving some of his behaviour. What a loyalty bind means is that when he is with you, he may feel guilty that he isn’t with his mother, or he may worry that he is being disloyal to her by loving you. This can happen regardless of how supportive his biological mother is towards you and towards your relationship with him. For kids in a loyalty bind, as much as they may love their stepfamily and the biological parent they are with at the time, it can sometimes feel as though they need to push against this to show loyalty to the other biological parent they aren’t with (his mother). This is really understandable and makes a lot of sense when you think about it through their eyes.

The way to deal with this is to be aware of it and perhaps try speaking with him about it. Validate whatever he feels, but don’t push the information from him. Just give him space and permission to feel whatever he feels. A way to start the conversation may be something like, ‘It can be difficult when you love two people but they live in different houses can’t it’ … or something like that. If you can, let him know that he can call his mother when he isn’t with her. This can help to ease the loyalty bind by giving him the opportunity to make contact with his mother, and let her know that he is thinking of her and that he loves her. Of course, this will only work if his mother is able to reassure him that while she misses him too, she is absolutely fine and pleased that he is having a good time with you. Again, don’t force him to speak about it, but if something comes up or if you get a sense that this might be happening, give him the space and permission to speak about it if he wants to.

He may also feel a little jealous that his sister gets to live with both of her parents but he can only be with one at a time. There are so many things that could be going on for him, and we can only speculate. It’s wonderful that you are giving him time and attention, but in stepfamilies there are other things that could be driving big feelings. This is nothing to worry about – all kids have their ‘stuff’ to deal with, whether their parents are together or not. Just be aware and if you can, give him the space to talk about it. Telling him off when he does the wrong thing will tend to backfire. The problem is that it is more likely to increase his sense of shame and increase the disconnection he feels. There still needs to be boundaries, and it’s always best for discussions about this and consequences to happen when he is calm. When anyone is in high emotion, but part of the brain that is able to receive the information is sent ‘offline’ until the big feelings settle. When he is settled, gently talk to him about what has happened. Let him know that his sister loves him so much and that it must be very scary for her when she sees her big brother getting so angry with her. Ask him how he thinks he can put it right (apologise? play with her for a little while?), and then implement your consequences. Try to make the consequences make sense, so for example, if he got angry because he didn’t want to share something with his sister, explain that part of having nice things is being able to share them sometimes. Let him know that you know he is a great big brother and that he is really kind and a wonderful sharer (kids will live up to expectations or down to them – treat him as though he already is the way you want him to be), but that he seems to have forgotten this for a little while. Let him know that he has lost his (whatever it is) until he can play nicely again with his sister … or something like that.

Finally, I absolutely know how exhausting step-parenting can be – I’m a stepparent myself. Keep loving him – it’s worth it. Your role is such an important one for him and for maintaining the connections within your family. It can be tough some days – maybe a lot of days, but know what a difference you are making.

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Mary

My 3 year old grand daughter is very clingy everyday and she has to rub our face, hands and feet and legs . And She will not give up the binky and since I have got custody of her she will not let me or grandpa out of her sight. She fights us when we tell her that it is time to come in from play or just from the car she screams and stamps her feet. I need some help and direction.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Mary what you are describing is understandable given your grand-daughter’s age, and what sounds like may have been some difficult circumstances in her life (if you have custody rather than her biological mother or father). The touching you have described and her binky are ways she self-soothes when she is feeling unsettled or anxious. Let her feel the security of this and it will help to build her feelings of safety and trust in the world. At three, your grand-daughter is also experimenting with the fact that she is separate to you, with her own needs and her own wants. The fight she shows when she is asked to do something she doesn’t want to do is part of her experimenting with her independence. Because of her age, she also doesn’t have all of the words to express herself, which is likely to be why she screams and stamps her feet. When she does this, let her know that you see her. If she feels as though you understand that she is angry/ upset/ scared/ insecure, it will make it easier for her to let go of the need to show you. Try something like, ‘I can see how upset you are about having to stop playing. It’s annoying when you have to stop doing something you’re enjoying isn’t it. I get that. Right now though it’s dinner time, but let’s play again tomorrow. This isn’t necessarily a quick fix, but over time, it will help her with the words she needs to express herself, and naming what kids are feeling has been shown to calm the nervous system. The more you are able to do this, the more it will help her to feel safe and secure. It’s not easy, and three year olds can be so challenging, but she is very lucky to have you.

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Sherry

Great article. My son (soon to be 10 yo) grinds his teeth at night (severely) and has a very short fuse with his younger sister, which leads to bickering, yelling and general tantrums. He is a well-behaved, thoughtful child who does well in school. It seems that most of his venting is directed at his sister. He also battles constipation and takes Miralax daily.

Could these things be signs of anxiety?

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

It could well be anxiety – big feelings are directed by the same part of the brain. Here is an article that has some strategies for managing anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/dealing-with-anxiety-in-children-calm-anxious-brain/ and another one for how to talk to your son about what happens when he gets angry and how to deal with it https://www.heysigmund.com/raising-kids-emotionally-intelligent-kids-teens-anger-how-to-be-the-boss-of-your-brain/.

It sounds as though your son would really benefit from mindfulness. (Actually all kids can benefit from mindfulness!) There is so much research that has shown that mindfulness can be really powerful in strengthening the brain against anxiety. It seems to work by reducing acitivity in the amygdala (the part of the brain that drives anxiety and big feelings) and increasing activity in the pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain that is able to calm big feelings, consider consequences). It also seems to strengthen the connections between the amygdala and the pre-frontal cortex. It’s just such a great thing for kids to practice, whether or not they have anxiety. Here is an article that talks about different ways to practice, including an app. If you can start with about 10 minutes a day, that can really start to strengthen the brain and help with the symptoms of anxiety or aggression https://www.heysigmund.com/mindfulness-for-children-fun-effective-ways-to-strengthen-mind-body-spirit/.

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Amanda

Hi thanks for this article, it really makes sense! I have a 7 yr old girl who is a really high achiever, perfect at school and with everybody but gets very angry/sulky at home and has major tantrums/emotional outbursts then gets very upset afterwards. She is quite mature and seems very sensitive to others emotions too. We have been doing breathing together and I’m going to try some more mindfulness techniques with her and a bit more empathy instead of frustration from me!

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