Are you struggling to understand your child’s challenging behaviours? Perhaps you are concerned that your child has signs of autism, ADD or ADHD. Maybe he or she throws tantrums, has meltdowns, often complains of headaches, tummy aches about going to school, or is fearful of trying anything new?
Perhaps you have a child who behaves impeccably at school, sits quietly in class, then comes home and acts out, kicking and screaming angrily. In my practise I have found this to be a common behaviour, but something you might be uncomfortable talking about. I know I was.
I remember feeling very confused when my sweet, angelic 5 year old started to express herself in this way. This was many years ago now, but it started me on a journey of discovery that is still continuing, in an attempt to understand children’s learning and behavioural challenges, and the best way to address them. As a therapist I now know I was not alone, and have met many parents facing similar issues, but at the time, I thought I was the only struggling parent in the entire universe.
Behaviours as a means of Communication
I have since realised that this behaviour was her way of telling me that her nervous system had been on heightened alert all day, as she struggled to cope in a new environment that she found overwhelming. This behaviour was her way of releasing the tension that had built up during the day, rather like the valve on a pressure cooker.
When your child displays challenging behaviours, this does not necessarily mean he or she is being naughty, or seeking attention, as is so often assumed. Rather, this can be their way of communicating something. Instead of punishment and chastisement, could it be that what they are really asking for is connection, support and understanding?
Often, challenging behaviours indicate that the child has had a shock or some other overwhelming experience during infancy or early childhood. As a result, their nervous system is easily triggered into going into sensory overload. Through their behaviours, your children are showing you that they’re feeling stressed and are struggling to cope. They are asking us to help them to make sense of a world that to them may seem full of confusion and overwhelming sensations.
Behaviours as Indications of Anxiety
Anxiety is a survival instinct, as our bodies prepare for a perceived threat, and your child’s behaviours are a good indication that he or she is reacting to a disturbing situation. Trying to deal with some big feelings that they are struggling to understand can be a strong contributor to your child’s anxiety.
Understanding the “why” behind such behaviours can give us a clue to the best to way to respond. Learning how to manage this distress through self-regulating is an important part of your child’s early development.
Managing those Anxious Feelings
Anxiety will always be there for all of us, and the goal is to learn how to manage (recognise and address) it so that it doesn’t take over our lives.
As parents, your first impulse is often to step in and solve your children’s problems. It is tempting to want to wrap them in cotton wool and protect them from all the challenges we know the big wide world is going to present to them. We can’t “fix” our children’s anxiety, but we can help them to deal with it, by “being there” with them in their discomfort.
The trick is in finding the balance between keeping them safe from harm, but still helping them to acquire the skills they need to have a life full of new experiences and the learning that comes through this.
Your child needs you to be present, so it helps if you are aware of your own emotional responses, and how this feels in your body. One of the ways your anxious child can learn to regulate their behaviour is by being with you, and experiencing how you calm yourself when stressed (and if you stay stressed, they will pick this up too).
This is not the time for a demonstration of anger, disciplinary tactics or manipulative strategies, and it won’t help if everyone is escalating out of control. The thinking part of the child’s brain is not online, and they are acting purely instinctive manner. Talking rarely helps – they don’t need a lecture right now.
Addressing your own Anxieties
One way to respond is to modulate your breathing, which in turn can slow your heartbeat, and induce a feeling of calm (see my earlier article on addressing Anxiety). Children are like little sponges, and your child can learn to attune to your emotional state, simply through being with you and watching your behaviour.
Earlier, I mentioned my distress and confusion when my daughter was releasing her tension after a day at school. When I finally realised that this behaviour was her way of trying to tell me something, everything changed. I found that the best thing I could do to help her was to work on my own triggered anxieties. The outcome was that as I became more calm, so did she, with a flow-on effect with those around us.
In order to support your children, sometimes it is necessary to address your own childhood wounding as the source of your anxieties. This is a perfectly normal process, and your therapist will be able to guide you as you to connect with and understand your own triggered reactions. The benefits for you and your children can extend beyond just behavioural changes, with flow-on effects in other areas of their lives – social, emotional, physical and academic.
If you would like to know more, or to book an appointment, call for a chat on 0474 095 432
If your child’s anxiety levels are causing serious concern contact Beyond Blue