Your child comes home from school and throws epic tantrums — kicking, screaming, not listening to reason. An after-school snack does nothing, and punishing only makes it worse. You’re at your wit’s end and you don’t know what’s wrong, or what to do.
Or maybe you have a child who acts out during school. The teacher reports that they seem to snap at the smallest criticism. They’re physically aggressive with the others kids, and end up in the principal’s office too many times to count.
When you have an unruly, disruptive child – especially a child who causes harm to others, or who can’t seem to function normally – it is so easy to feel absolutely hopeless. You may be wondering where you have failed as a parent. You may feel angry at your child for not being able to keep it together.
But what you may not realize is that your child isn’t trying to be a jerk: they very well might be suffering from anxiety.
When we think of anxiety, we usually think of a nervous, shy, constantly apologizing, edgy sort of person. But anxiety – especially in children – can manifest very differently. When you get triggered by anxiety, your “fight or flight” system goes into full gear. Adrenaline courses through you, signaling to your body that you are in danger.
For some people, this stress response might look like a more internal kind of panic (racing heartbeat, churning tummy), but for others, the anxiety is manifested as an outward kind of aggression. This is common for children, whose BIG feelings occupy their small beings, and who have few coping mechanisms for how to control these feelings.
“We tend to think of anxious children as these delicate little butterflies, but when kids are scared, they can be ferocious about trying to escape or avoid anxiety-provoking situations,” Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a child psychologist and author of Kid Confidence, tells The Washington Post.
Think about it: being a kid can be extremely anxiety-producing, especially when you enter school. All of a sudden, there is this enormous pressure to perform, behave, and keep yourself together. You may feel social pressure, or there may be major stresses from home. Even at young ages, many children have already experienced significant traumas.
If a child has the right combination of genetic disposition toward anxiety and environmental triggers, you have a potential recipe for a very intense anxiety disorder, and one that if almost always not recognized as such.
Part of the problem, Dr. Nancy Rappaport explains to Child Mind Institute, is that many children with anxiety tend to reject help from those around them. “The trouble is that when kids who are anxious become disruptive they push away the very adults who they need to help them feel secure,” she says. “And instead of learning to manage their anxiety, they end up spending half the day in the principal’s office.”
These things get compounded if you have a child who has experienced trauma or ADHD.
“Kids who are struggling, not feeling safe at home, can act like terrorists at school, with fairly intimidating kinds of behavior,” explains Dr. Rappaport. Children with ADHD and anxiety may be the most difficult to identify and treat, she says: “They’re hyper-vigilant, they have no executive functioning, they misread cues and go into combat.”
So what should parents do if they have a disruptive kid and suspect anxiety might be at play here? First of all, just considering that something more than “my kid sucks” is going on here is huge, because so many parents are quick to blame or punish their kids for misbehavior rather than trying to figure out the root cause.
If you think your child may be suffering from anxiety or another mental health disorder, bring them to the pediatrician or a child psychologist for an evaluation. If you end up getting a diagnosis like anxiety or OCD (also very common in children with behavioral issues), then it’s wise to consult with your child’s teachers to make a plan.
Oftentimes, understanding that anxiety is at play will dramatically change the approach for dealing with the misbehavior. Dr. Rachel Busman, clinical psychologist with Child Mind Institute, says that often you need to address the underlying anxiety before you can even tackle issues like ADHD, learning disabilities, and behavioral concerns.
For example, imagine a teen who has OCD and is performing poorly in school. “She’s ritualizing three to four hours a day, and having constant intrusive thoughts—so we need to treat that, to get the anxiety under control before we ask, how is she learning?” says Dr. Busman.
The good news is that once you get a diagnosis, anxiety is usually very treatable. Cognitive behavioral therapy and dialectical behavioral therapy are generally successful modalities, explains The Washington Post. Other coping strategies like meditation, mindful breathing, and plenty of sleep and outdoor time can be helpful as well.
It can be so stressful to parent a child who is having issues, especially when they include angry outbursts and problems at school. You may feel entirely alone, but trust me, you aren’t. Just thinking about these things and looking for answers means that you are doing a fantastic job as a parent.
And remember that whatever your child is struggling with, help is out there.