When children exhibit disruptive behaviours to hide their anxiety
Our eight-year-old daughter has been exhibiting difficult behaviour for the past couple of weeks: she yells, cries uncontrollably, refuses to do her homework and tells us that she does not want to go to school. She has never behaved that way before. This started a little bit before the exam period; however, she is good at school and has never had academic difficulties.
Stress and worry arise when the brain perceives a problematic situation, whether it is real or not. The body then naturally and automatically produces hormones and adrenaline to “fight or flight” this threat. However, the response to those stressors are exacerbated in anxious individuals when facing new, threatening, difficult or unknown situations. In these cases, the brain sets off a state of alert just in case the threat becomes real, and it does so in an exaggerated or non-necessary manner when compared to the stressor the individual is faced with. The fact that the body does not actually need to move or flee when these situations arise causes a rapid increase and accumulation of hormones in the body, which leads to various physical symptoms: stomach aches, rapid heartbeat, shaking, nausea, etc. Aggressive and oppositional behaviours can also be triggered by anxiety, whether it is perceived or not by the child. If the typical response of some anxious children is to freeze or flee, others tend to face the stressful situation in response to a brain on high alert and an increased anxiety level, causing disruptive behaviours.
The occurrence of these disruptive behaviours can catch off-guard and be hard to understand. Nevertheless, by trying to comprehend what happened with the child and what caused their behavior, we can better guide him towards searching for strategies to overcome his anxiety and prevent the occurrence of such behaviors.
Various interventions can be put in place to help the child:
- Pay attention to our own reactions: children are sensitive and tend to imitate their parents’ behaviors. Thus, by reacting calmly in a stressful situation, the child will tend to do the same.
- Offer constant, coherent and predictable responses: this will reduce the stress felt by the child since he has an idea of what is expected.
- Help the child understand his reactions by explaining how they arise: simply knowing what goes on in his brain, in a vulgarized way, can show him what can be done to better manage his anxiety. Understanding and feeling understood is important for the child to know what he can change.
- Recognize the child’s strengths and limitations: each child is different, and children do not all react the same way to a given stressor. Thus, it is crucial to focus on the strengths of the child to help him overcome challenges.
- Give attention to positive behaviors: a child that is often angry or aggressive will tend to get more attention when behaving disruptively. If we want a child to develop his self-esteem and his ability to change, we need to reflect on what he is doing well and the appropriate behaviors he exhibits.
Here are a few interventions to do with the child:
- Take deep breaths: this has a positive impact on the frontal part of the brain and a calming effect that helps with reducing anxiety.
- Have “powerful” thoughts a child can repeat to himself in order to better control the stressful situation (e.g., “I am capable”, “everything is going to be okay”).
- Name the emotion and its trigger: this will allow to tame the emotion and create connections in the brain. When the emotion occurs again, it will be better recognized.
It is important to mention that these same symptoms can be associated to various diagnostics or challenges. Therefore, the manifestations of anxiety are not exclusive and can be associated with disorders such as opposition or aggressiveness. It is necessary to have a good comprehension of the situation and the child in order to better understand how to help him.
*The use of the pronoun “he” is meant to alleviate the reading of this document.
Leyba, E. (2017). Not Naughty: 10 Ways Kids Appear to Be Acting Bad But Aren't. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/joyful-parenting/201705/not-naughty-10-ways-kids-appear-be-acting-bad-arent
Miller, C. (2019). How Anxiety Leads to Disruptive Behavior. Retrieved from https://childmind.org/article/how-anxiety-leads-to-disruptive-behavior/
Young, K. (2019). 18 Important Things That Kids With Anxiety Need to Know. Retrieved from https://www.heysigmund.com/kids-with-anxiety-need-to-know/
Young, K. (2019). Anxiety or Aggression? When Anxiety in Children Looks Like Anger, Tantrums, or Meltdowns. Retrieved from https://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-or-aggression-children