How Anxiety Leads to Challenging Behaviors in Children

Google Dictionary definition: anx·i·e·ty noun noun: anxiety; plural noun: anxieties a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. -“he felt a surge of anxiety” a nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks. desire to do something, typically accompanied by unease.

I share this definition of anxiety provided by a simple google dictionary search to highlight that you are not alone and millions of people are looking for the same answers as you. We will get there and I hope to help you with this blog post along the journey of understanding how anxiety can show up in children. While this is a general description of what anxiety is, first and foremost you should know that anxiety in children can present in many different forms of challenging behaviors. ​

Anxiety is a great masquerader and notorious for always being wrong. Hidden beneath the surface of many challenging behaviors can deeply lie the source.

What you may see:

  • Oppositional or defiant behaviors
  • Angry outbursts at home, school or in the community
  • Frequent 0-60 “meltdowns”
  • Big reactions to small problems
  • Clingy behaviors
  • Trouble focusing
  • Avoidance
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Social challenges
  • Aggression

What might be happening: Unrecognized childhood anxiety ​

When anxiety shows up with these sorts of behaviors in children, it can often be difficult to pinpoint and understand why? What we do know is that behavior is a form of communication and it always serves a function. With anxiety, we often see children trying to escape difficult situations by engaging in challenging behaviors. Let’s take a look at how this may play out in school.

Let’s pretend Jane is a 3rd grader and at school she often displays what looks like oppositional, disobedient and unmanageable behaviors. Her teacher may describe frequent outbursts, running out the classroom, and ripping up papers. She often ends up in the principles or school counselor’s office, she never gets to green on the classroom behavior chart and sometimes she is sent home. Even worse she has been suspended because one time she hit the principle because she could not calm down.

In Jane’s case, the anxiety shows up and she doesn’t have the skills yet (depending on her age and developmental level) to understand it or communicate how she is feeling. Her body and mind go into fight or flight mode, her brain kicks into high gear, she feels like she is in danger and she tries to escape the situation or fight back against it. When she is sent home or gets a break in the principles office, these consequences meet her needs of getting out of the uncomfortable situation that caused her to feel anxious in the first place.

Over time, as we feed anxiety with our mismanaged coping skills:

  • It gets stronger
  • More anxiety triggers build
  • It becomes more frequent
  • It has greater power over our behaviors

So as you can see here in the case of “Jane”, challenging behaviors that are often seen as defiant or oppositional can be easily misread anxiety. In a nutshell, if your child’s behavior is unpredictable or they are quick to anger, anxiety may be the cause or this might be something to explore further towards understanding how to support your child.

Here at ABC Behavioral Services, I primarily utilize Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to help children manage their anxiety. This therapeutic approach is behavioral and ACTion based focusing on:

  • Skill building and learning coping skills
  • Flexibility
  • Mindfulness
  • Acceptance

ACT is empirically supported by loads of evidence based research, and is known as the third wave approach to behavior therapy. Essentially with the ACT approach, we don’t encourage one trying to remove, reframe or change difficult thoughts and feelings as often seen in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). Rather, we will work collaboratively together to foster psychological flexibility in the following ways: by promoting acceptance of what is, learning helpful coping skills, and changing the relationship we have with pain, difficult emotions and life’s challenges. This approach allows for workable ACTion and positive behavior changes that are goal oriented, and behaviorally focused on your personal values.

If you want to learn more some of my favorite parenting resources related to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Parenting are:

  • The Joy of Parenting by Dr. Amy Murrell and Dr. Lisa Coyne. This is an excellent book on combining ACT approaches with Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) strategies for parents.
  • Parenting your Anxious Child with Mindfulness and Acceptance by Dr. Chris McCurry
  • The Reality Slap– by Dr. Russ Harris. This is a great book for parents and he shares his own personal journey regarding parenting a child with ASD.

If you would like to explore this further, would like more information or resources on how to support children with anxiety, please reach out or contact me for a free consultation.

Dr. Gurash

Be well,

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