Almost every week, I receive calls from parents seeking therapy for their “angry,” “aggressive,” or “obnoxious” child. My answer is always the same: “I’m happy to see your child and figure out what they’re anxious about.” Most parents are confused and try and correct me, but by the third session, they’re shocked to find out that their child isn’t angry at all, they really are full of worry, fear, and anxiety.
What is Childhood Anxiety?
I typically define childhood anxiety as a consistent worry or fear that something bad is going to happen to them or loved ones. Most parents have a challenging time understanding that their child has the capacity to be anxious. Many parents state, “They have nothing to worry about. Their life is so easy. I wish I just had school and homework.” Actually, your child has a greater likelihood of experiencing anxiety than an adult because their brain has not fully developed yet. The main structures that are working, such as the amygdala, are primarily responsible for detecting stress and dangerous situations. The frontal lobe, which is responsible for logical thought and planning, won’t fully develop until an individual is their 20s. That’s a long time for stress and worry to be occupying your child’s brain.
When Does Aggression Start?
Trauma experts and researchers Onno Van der Hart, Ellert R.S. Nijenhuis, and Kathy Steele (2006) discovered that most children’s first survival response is to attach. Children between infancy and 5 years of age are looking for a safe base in an attachment figure (mother, father, caregiver). Someone to care for them and keep them away from danger. Children between 2 to 6 years or age will often freeze when becoming anxious. This can look like shutting down, zoning out, or literally freezing if they sense danger (such as a car coming). From 10 to 13, children will submit and look as though they are taking on roles that a parent would usually take on. They will attempt to do things their parents ask in order to avoid being in trouble. Children between 13 and 17 will typically use their flight mechanism. This is why we often see teenagers sneaking out of their homes at night or running away. Most teenagers will also start to use their fight mechanism. This is when children will begin to argue when they are in trouble, and they appear defiant.
So, children between birth and 13 or 14 will likely not be using the fight mechanism. Rather, they will be in either attach, freeze, or submit!! Now, it may look like the child is aggressive or angry. Many children do hit, kick, scream, or bite but the motivation behind those behaviors is NOT anger, it’s fear.
So, What Are They Worried About?
One of my favorite activities to do with all of my children clients is a “Worry Web.” We take a ball of yarn and string it all across the office until it forms a spiderweb. Then, clients are asked to draw a picture or write their fears/worries down so they can tape it to the web. Over 80% of my children clients tell me they worry that their parents will leave OR that they will make their parent mad (which will cause them to leave). Now, many of my children have never had a parent leave, however, they instinctively know they need someone to care for them in order to survive. Other fears are: I won’t have friends, other people think I’m ugly or weird, parents getting divorced, siblings not spending time with them, and parents dying.
Children who have fears of something happening to their parent or their parent leaving will frequently display, what I call a “push-pull” behavior. One second they are yelling and screaming for you to leave them alone. The next second, they are crying for you to help them and literally snuggling into your lap. Children who do this are afraid their parent may leave or not lover them anymore. They are attempting to attach to their parent; they just don’t know how to do it.
Common Symptoms of Anxiety in Children
Along with a variety of aggressive behaviors that you may see, children with anxiety may also show signs of:
- Odd sleeping habits
They will ask to sleep in a parent’s room or with siblings. They may also try and stay awake as long as they can. Some children are also so exhausted from worrying all day that they are sleeping more than what is normal for them.
- Stomach pain
The stomach and head are highly connected organs so when one becomes anxious, so does the other. If anxiety starts in the brain, the stomach will become upset too.
- Won’t leave your side
Children may refuse to go to school, play with others, or give you any alone time because they are afraid of what may happen.
- Random, explosive outburst
Emotions get so overwhelming that children will yell to get all of the “bad feelings” out.
- Push-pull behaviors
Children may often show anger towards a parent one moment, and then the next, become very clingy and needy.
- Crying easily
In behavior similar to anger outbursts, some children cry very easily because they aren’t sure how to express their concerns or fears and become flooded with emotions.
Children may display various signs of sensitivity because their anxiety is on full alert and they believe others don’t like or love them and will leave them.
- Trouble focusing on tasks
Children may also struggle with focusing on schoolwork, homework, or completing chores. They may be preoccupied with negative thoughts.
The next time your young child begins to display behaviors of aggressive or anger, remember that they are worried and don’t know how to voice their fears. The best thing to do is hold them and rock them back and forth. Rocking will often soothe a child and help them calm down. Once the child is calm and back to a normal state, ask them what they are worried about but do NOT respond with, “That is ridiculous.” Make sure you empathize and say something similar to, “I’m so sorry you are feeling this way. What can I do to show you that [insert their fear] will be all right?”
Dr. Brie Ann Turns is an assistant professor of Marriage and Family Therapy and a licensed associate of marriage and family therapy. She has previously taught at Purdue University-Northwest, Texas Tech University, and Lubbock Christian University. Dr. Turns currently teaches at Fuller Theological Seminary-Arizona. Dr. Brie has spoken at local, state, national, and international conferences regarding families raising a child with an autism spectrum disorder. She has published numerous articles, book chapters, and magazine articles on various topics within the field of family therapy. Finally, Dr. Turns has been invited to speak at various universities including Yale, Brigham Young University, the University of Louisiana-Monroe. Learn more at thefamilytherapist.org, and follow her on Facebook and Instagram.
References: Hart, O., Nijenhuis, E., & Steele, K. (2006). The haunted self: Structural dissociation and the treatment of chronic traumatization (1st ed., The norton series on interpersonal neurobiology). New York: W.W. Norton.