One of the biggest problems associated with anxiety in children is that it is frequently mistaken for problem behavior.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that the behavior of highly anxious children closely mimics the behavior of children with behavioral disorders such as ADHD, learning disorders, or oppositional defiant behavior. Such behavior may include:
- Frequent and endless tantrums
- Inability to follow instructions
- Clingy behavior
- Impulsive behavior
- Extreme shyness
- Learning difficulties
- Angry behavior and an inability to control emotions
- Defiance, disobedience and frequent arguing
- Aggressive behavior toward others (hitting, biting, kicking others, etc.)
- Aggressive behavior toward objects (breaks things, kicks things, etc.)
The biggest challenge when dealing with anxiety in children is the fact that it is difficult to diagnos in many cases. When your child gets a stomach ache or throws up every morning before going to school or for her swimming lessons, the connection may be easy to make. The connection is much harder to establish when your child is aggressive, disrespectful, hyperactive, and prone to frequent explosive outbursts.
One of the reasons why anxiety-related behavior so closely mimics problem behavior is because, like all other emotions, anxiety is invisible. Your child will not necessary tell you or his teacher that reading is a great challenge for him and makes him anxious. Instead, he might act it out. And acting it out might mean playing the class clown to escape being asked to read, or even distracting others from reading. He may also lash out at his classmates, believing that his physical strength might somewhat make up for what he considers to be his poor reading skills. Your child may be anxious because she is always the last to finish assigned tasks and this anxiety may be manifested through aggressive behavior toward others.
The thing to remember is that primary emotions such as anxiety often lead to the emergence of other associated secondary emotions. To better understand this, think about how you react to anxiety-provoking situations. Say you are expected to go to a party where you’ve convinced yourself that you need to sound interesting and intelligent. And say you don’t think of yourself as interesting and intelligent. In such a situation, your anxiety is likely to give rise to other emotions such as fear of making a fool of yourself, or fear of being exposed as a hypocrite.
Anxiety in kids is quite similar. A child anxious because she thinks she is “slow” can also develop emotions such as fear and shame, and this can be manifested in her behavior. In other words, her hyperactivity can be an attempt to mask her feelings of shame, or her aggressivity can be her attempt to draw attention away from her “slowness” and the associated hopeless feelings.
What we now know is that a highly anxious child will attempt to get out of anxiety-provoking situations. But we also know that if he lacks the tools to do so, he is likely to react in a socially inappropriate manner. The truth is, anxiety is very good at hiding, and it is often difficult to recognize when this emotion drives your child’s behavior. Moreover, most kids lack the tools to deal effectively with strong emotions such as anxiety. What this means is that addressing your child’s anxiety is an important first step that may greatly reduce problem behavior. There are multiple free and relatively easy to apply techniques so it’s worth a try to see whether they could help modify your child’s behavior.
Five things to keep in mind when dealing with a highly anxious child
1) Find out what drives the anxiety
It is impossible to deal effectively with your child’s anxiety if you don’t know where that anxiety comes from. Anxiety has a way of camouflaging itself, and what is often perceived as hypersensitivity, impulsive behavior or defiance can also stem from your child’s inability to deal with his feeling of shame, fear, or even frustration with certain situations or events.
Making it easy for your child to express his emotions is the first step toward dealing with anxiety, but this may be challenging and will not occur overnight. Your child needs to feel emotionally safe, which means that he needs to know that expressing his emotions will not earn him ridicule. He needs to know that he will be listened to and that his feelings will be taken seriously. Remember that for kids, no fear is insignificant.
Holding the right kind of conversations around emotions can help you unearth what drives your child’s fears. For instance, saying “tell me one thing that made you happy/sad/angry/frustrated today” will get you better answers than saying “how was your day?”. Open-ended questions will give you better insight into your child’s behavior.
But not all children are ready and willing to open up. In such cases, taking note of when the problem behavior most frequently occurs can help you identify your child’s behavior patterns.
2) Do not wait for issues to escalate
Parents who have had to deal with a highly anxious child know that situations can quickly get out of hand. They also know that calming a child out of control takes a Herculean effort. This is why it is important to get to the underlying issue and therefore deal with anxiety-provoking situations before your child’s behavior gets out of hand.
Being able to identify what triggers your child’s anxiety will make it easier to deal with. For instance, helping your child read (not do) his homework can help lessen the anxiety associated with failing. Talking over possible reactions to anxiety-provoking situations can help your child view the situation as less threatening. Explaining to your child that his best effort is enough and helping him set up strategies to give his best may help relieve anxiety.
3) Give your child the tools to succeed
Most children can be taught to deal with normal anxiety in socially appropriate ways. Remember that anxiety in children often masks a need for reassurance: “yes, you matter”; “yes, we are listening”, “yes, you are loved”, “yes, we are here”, “yes, you will be loved even if you are poor at reading”; “yes, you are perfect just the way you are”….
There are multiple techniques your child can use on her own to deal with difficult emotions, but this can only work if she is aware of her emotions and what triggers those emotions. Distraction techniques are effective for helping young children find calm from anxiety provoking situations. Simple age-appropriate techniques can also do wonders for your child’s anxiety and other difficult emotions such as anger.
4) Make your child’s teacher an ally
Showing an interest in determining what drives your child’s problem behavior can motivate her teacher to help you along your journey. Explain what you are doing at home and ask for help in the classroom. Once you’ve found out what drives her anxiety, share this information with her teacher and ask for her help. It’s easier for your child’s teacher to change her perception of your child’s behavior when she knows it is driven by anxiety
5) Know when to seek professional help
Most cases of anxiety in children are normal and often pass with time as your child learns to deal with this anxiety in appropriate ways. However, anxiety can also hide a number of behavioral disorders such as ADHD, learning disorders, or oppositional defiant behavior. Do not hesitate to seek professional help if:
- Your child’s behavior seems to be getting worse despite your attempts to help him deal with his anxiety
- You feel overwhelmed and unable to help your child
- You are afraid your child will hurt himself or hurt others
- You can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong
The right professional for you and your family will be able to help you better identify whether your child is suffering from a case of anxiety or whether he has a behavioral disorder.
If your child is struggling with difficult emotions, The Emotions Kit will provide you with age-appropriate resources you can use to help him learn to better deal with emotions.