Did you know – anxiety and anger in children, can actually look very similar?
Yet obviously they are very different – and need to be treated very differently.
Anxiety in Children
Anxiety is a tricky emotion. And it can be a skilful imposter! Often what comes to mind is avoidance, clinginess, panic attacks and fear. But it can also look like anger, meltdowns and tantrums.
When adults see an anxious child, our first instinct is to reassure them that everything is going to be okay, and let them know they are safe – completely different to how we respond to anger! But when a child is dealing with an anxious brain, their behaviour has nothing to do with being defiant, oppositional, or pushing your limits. Their brain is on high alert, and their body is wired for action.
Anxiety happens when the threat focused part of the brain, the amygdala, senses trouble. When this happens, the body is flooded with hormones to keep it strong and safe – the fight or flight response, which gets the body prepared to run from a threat or stand and fight it. It’s a mechanism which has been keeping us alive for thousands of years.
Anxious children have a particularly over protective amygdala, which is like a super charged threat detector. To them, anything that is new, stressful, unfamiliar or difficult could be counted as a threat – which means constant (and automatic) surges of those hormones! The natural end to this is intense physical activity (remember – running or fighting), so anxious children often have all this pent up emotion and tension, with no idea what to do with it … then come the meltdowns.
Anger and Aggression versus Anxiety
Remember, there are two systems here – fight and flight. The typical anxious behaviours (avoidance, clinginess) come from the “flight” pathway, while the meltdowns come from the “fight” pathway.
The amygdala itself is kind of like a smoke alarm – it can’t tell whether it’s a piece of burnt toast setting off the alarm, which can easily be dealt with, or a huge fire you have to run from – it just sets off the alarm bell LOUD! So when anxiety gets triggered, even if there’s nothing to avoid, all that energy still has to go somewhere!
Of course, this doesn’t mean that aggression is okay! We might be able to make sense of their behaviour, but there are still better choices they can make. That’s where adults can help! Just because this system is automatic, it doesn’t mean we can’t learn to control it – we absolutely can! But first, we need to understand it. As adults, we can help children to recognise what’s going on, and teach them strategies to deal with it better.
Is it Anger or Anxiety?
It can be tough, but one golden rule is: if you deal with aggression as bad behaviour (but anxiety is at play) it will make the situation worse.
There are other clues as well – anxiety has lots of tell tale signs which you are probably already familiar with. Look for avoidant behaviour, headaches, tummy aches, and talk about not being able to cope. Also look out for patterns – is the behaviour always coming up in new, stressful, or difficult situations?
If you have identified that your child may be exhibiting anxiety-driven aggression, here are some tips to help you manage their behaviour:
- Explain where anxiety comes from. Help your child understand the role of the amygdala and what is happening inside their bodies. You will be amazed at how big a difference this can make! If you’re not totally sure, you can look together for child friendly explanations online, or ask a therapist to explain it.
- Breathe. You’ve probably heard it before – “take some deep breaths and calm down”, but do you know why it works? The amygdala has always been so important to our survival, that when it’s fired up, it tells the rest of the brain (like the part that does the thinking and makes good decisions) to take a hike. That’s great if you have one second to get out of the way of a speeding car, but is less helpful when you’re in the middle of something important or hard. Breathing calms the amygdala down, and helps the rest of your brain get a say.
- But you have to practice! Deep breathing is hard – one way to practice is to place something (like a soft toy) on your belly and breathe deeply in for three, and out for three. If the toy is moving, it means you are breathing deep into your belly – which is perfect!
- Have powerful thoughts ready. Anxiety thinks you’re in danger – so it’s important to let your brain know you’re in charge, and you’ve got it under control. Talk to your amygdala to let it know you’re the boss – something like “we’ve got this, thanks for the warning but you can relax now”. Again, practice makes perfect – so you need to practice your “boss thoughts” even when you’re not in trouble – practice all the time, and it will become automatic too!
- Name it to tame it. Big emotions live on the right side of the brain. Words to explain them live on the left. When the parts of our brain aren’t working together, our big emotions feel overwhelming and don’t make any sense. So a powerful way of calming down is to name the emotion and parents can help here too – “I can see you’re really overwhelmed right now”, “not getting that lolly made you really upset”. Hearing the words that fit with their feelings will help make the feelings make sense, and the child feel more in control.
If you have concerns about anxiety or anger and aggression in your child, it might be worth booking in to see me or another psychologist, experienced in working children.
Author: Tiegan Holtham, B Sc (Hons), M Psych (Clinical), MAPS.
Tiegan Holtham is a Clinical Psychology Registrar, based at M1 Psychology Loganholme. Working from a strengths-based framework, Tiegan assists children, adolescents, adults and families with difficulties such as anger, anxiety, jealousy, self-criticism and perfectionism.
This article was adapted from the Hey Sigmund article “Anxiety or Aggression? When Anxiety in Children Looks Like Anger, Tantrums, or Meltdowns”. For more great articles, check out www.heysigmund.com.