Temper tantrums, conduct disorder, school behaviors, over control, fighting with siblings - all of these anger management problems can actually be signs of anxiety.
Many parents are surprised to hear that their child with disruptive behaviors could have an anxiety disorder. Anxiety and anger operate on very similar physiological responses in the body, meaning that increased heart rate, breathing, and muscle tension can lead to an anxious reaction or an angry one. It’s very important for parents to ask themselves:
Is my child angry, or just anxious?
In addition to today’s post, I strongly recommend you read this article from the Child Mind Institute: How Anxiety Leads to Disruptive Behavior
We’re coming up on week 4 of our anxious parenting series (it’s been a blast!) and we’re on my favorite topic. Here’s what’s coming up for these next few weeks:
Anxiety and Parenting a Child with Anger Management Issues (spoiler: it’s probably anxiety related as well!)
Perfectionism and Parenting Your Highschooler
Preparing Your Highschooler for College
Out of the Nest: How to Parent Your Anxiety-Driven College Student
Moving Forward and Next Steps
What’s Happening: The Body and the Brain
When we experience stress or anxiety, eventually our brain and body reach a tipping point. We’re totally overwhelmed. Our brain starts to feel like we’re in danger, and so it pushes us back to our survival brain. We get ready to fight, flight, or freeze.
The thing is, sometimes our brain tells us we’re in danger when we’re not. And a survival mechanism that’s so helpful if you’re, say, confronted with a giant bear (you fight it, you run away, you play dead) isn’t so helpful when you get bumped into in the lunch line.
Fight, Flight, Freeze and the Tipping Point
Kids who are more prone to stress and anxiety are easier to tip into the fight/flight/freeze response. Something that seems like a small stressor to you can feel like a huge stressor to them.
Typically, parents expect anxiety to lead to the flight or freeze response. Kids run away, or they clam up and cling.
But what about that fight response?
The Big Reaction
All of a sudden…
The meltdown, the crying fit, the embarrassing overreaction in the middle of the grocery store.
What started as a gentle suggestion that your child go join the other kids at the YMCA daycare turned into a huge tantrum. You’re left wondering how to deal with this anger, which seemingly came out of nowhere.
What to Do
It’s tough to not overreact or feel helpless as the parent in this situation. But as a quick word of caution, meeting your child’s emotions on the same level can make problems bigger rather than smaller.
Misery loves company.
And your child’s amygdala, which has lead to the big angry overreaction, feels vindicated in that emotion if you’re equally angry with them. It’s like that anger wins by making you upset as well. And some amygdalas push so far that your child responds with violence.
Parent In Charge:
So instead of letting your own anxiety or anger take over, start, with a few deep breaths yourself. You calming down will on a neurological level make it easier for your child to calm down as well.
Once you feel calmer, let your child know that you will be taking some more deep breaths if they want to join in. They can sit in your lap or next to you.
If they start trying to run away, try and get them into a room where there’s limited access to things they can pull down or break.
1. Identify and Empathize:
Then, consider what’s causing this blow up. Is it really just anger, or is there something else underneath it? Maybe being in a new situation or having to deal with certain adults? Concerns about peers? School avoidance?
Talk with your child about what’s going on. If you start by criticizing they behavior, or saying that they’re going to be in so much trouble, you might ramp them up again. So instead, focus on helping them understand what lead to this response:
“It seemed like you got really angry when we went to your new classroom, and I’m wondering if part of you was feeling scared, too. Sometimes when our bodies feel really scared, it makes us feel really angry. That’s just my guess, though - what do you think made you feel this way?”
Then, have your child choose what relaxation step will be most helpful for them. Giving them a choice helps your child to keep some of their power, and can give them a little more buy-in.
“Ok, so if you’re feeling angry about what’s going on, we need to have our bodies and brains calm before we can come up with a really good solution. So, do you want to do something with your breathing, your brain, or your muscles? Your choice!”
Selecting from these broader categories allows you to choose what breathing activity, muscle activity, or meditation/guided imagery activity will feel like the best fit for your child.
After the relaxation practice, check in. Are they still feeling really angry, or are they ready to move on to step three?
3. Game Plan:
Sometimes we have to do things that we don’t want to do, but there may be room to compromise. There’s a big difference between giving in to the angry demands, and helping your child feel less overwhelmed through making one or two compromises.
Figure out your limit, and explain it to your child:
“Ok, we have to make sure that we pick up all the cereal boxes that got knocked down in this aisle when you were upset.”
Then figure out what you can do to help:
“I can help you and pick up a few, as long as you’re doing some of the work.”
Finally, ask them:
“What seems fair to you?”
If they answer with something opposite to your limit, gently remind them of the rule. You could offer another compromise, but you want them to eventually solve the problem mostly on their own.
Seeing It In Action
I used to work at a behavioral school, where tons of kids were being treated for anxiety, trauma, and conduct disorders. Often, these kids would get overwhelmed with the classwork or social issues, and if we were to give them a consequence, many of them would flip out to the huge angry reaction.
As a therapist less than a year out of graduate school, these huge reactions were really overwhelming to me. Sometimes leading the class, I’d use my “mean teacher voice” but it just seemed to make things worse - maybe because it felt so unnatural to me.
One time, one of our students was told she had to stay inside for recess. As the other students lined up to go outside, she started pulling books of the shelves, ripping paper, and coloring all over the whiteboards (with dry erase markers, luckily). The teacher said she would send someone to check on me, and then left me to handle the situation.
Suddenly, I had an anxiety spike.
Could I handle this situation? Could I actually be in charge?
So I pulled up a chair next to the exit, in case she tried to run away, and I took some deep breaths until I felt more calm.
Identify and Empathize:
After I felt more calm - still a little nervous! - I went over to where she was standing.
“Hey lady, it seems like you’re really upset. I’m thinking it’s because you lost out on recess, which makes sense - that would make me feel kind of angry, too.”
She jumped in: “I’m not angry! I’m sad! And it’s not fair that I lost out on recess just because I was doing the same thing that everyone else was doing!”
So I responded in kind, and empathized more: “Ok, I hear you. So, you’re feeling mostly sad. And that does seem unfair. I really hate it when other people do things but just one person gets in trouble.”
She paused in her coloring and looked at me. She had calmed down enough to pay more attention.
I continued: “Ok, so we know that it feels really unfair and really sad. But it’s hard to solve a problem and move forward when we’re feeling all of these feelings, and they’re really really big feelings. Maybe we could take some deep breaths or just keep coloring together on some paper? What do you think?”
“I just want to color.”
“I love that idea!” I responded. “Let’s grab some paper to color on, and you know what, I think I’m probably going to take some deep breaths when we do that, too.”
After about five minutes of calm coloring, I pointed out to her, “Hey, your body seems a lot more calm to me. Are you feeling a little less overwhelmed?”
She replied, “I’m still pretty sad.”
“Ok,” I responded. “Let’s take a few more minutes to color and you can let me know when you’re ready to talk more,” letting her take the lead.
After another 10 minutes (which felt like a long time to me!) my student looked up from the paper. “Ok,” she said, “I’m ready to talk more.”
I jumped in with some specific praise, “Thanks for letting me know. I really appreciate how you were checking in with your body this whole time. Great job using coloring to relax and calm down. That was an awesome choice!”
She kind of rolled her eyes because, let’s be fair, that did sound pretty earnest, but she smiled at me.
I continued talking, “Ok, so we know that we need to clean up the room before the class gets back from recess. I’m happy to help, but I need you to take the lead and let me know what to do.”
She asked, “But what about me going out for the rest of recess?”
I answered, “You know, you had to miss out on recess today, but that doesn’t mean you have to miss recess tomorrow. So, we can’t go out to recess this afternoon, but maybe we can talk with our teacher about making sure you get to go tomorrow.”
I continued, “And, I feel like Ms. K is going to be a lot more likely to let you go to recess if we clean up the room now. Does that make sense?”
She nodded. “Ok, I can clean up. Can you help me start with the books, and then I don’t know what to do next.”
“Absolutely,” I responded, “And after we do the books as step one, we can figure out the rest from there.”
The Moral of the Story
All the stressors my student had experienced in the classroom that day, along with her background stress and anxiety, led to a huge reaction on her part. By allowing her the space to explore what happened, and by being the calm adult in charge, we were able to come to a solution and move forward. After working together for about a year and a half, I left the school, and she gave me a “Best Therapist” award (not that I’m bragging or anything! But it’s still on a very prominent place on my book shelf).
Another six months after I left, one of my former colleagues let me know that she had graduated from the behavioral school to the autism program, and had continued to do very well with managing her emotions. I think a big part of that was due to reinforcing, day after day, the steps we needed to take when emotions feel too big.
We’ll always have stress in our life. We’ll always be angry, or sad, or overwhelmed, or nervous. We just need to help coach our kids on how to manage those important feelings.
Last week we asked:
How can I share my personal anxiety management plan with my child, and use those skills to help them build their own plan?
What seems to stress my child out the most, and what are some solutions to this one problem that we can figure out together?
This week, I want to know:
What are my child’s clues that they’re building toward a meltdown?
How can I catch them and redirect them in the moment, without leading to a blow up?
Curious to hear more? Reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. As a child anxiety specialist, I work with kids, teens, college students and parents to help manage their anxiety, stress, and anger. Compassionate Counseling St. Louis is located in Clayton, MO and works with families throughout Creve Couer, Ballwin, Town and Country, Brentwood, and Ladue. You can set up your first free consult on this very website, on our consultation page.