Anxious children are often highly sensitive and easily overwhelmed. In their distress, they may have regular meltdowns, or prefer to shut themselves away. These behaviours can be very hard to be with, and its’s not always easy to know how to respond. Your child may also complain of headaches, tummy aches or resist going to school.
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 acting out after starting school. This was many years ago now, but it started me on a journey of discovery. This journey is ongoing, as I continue to understand children’s learning and behavioural challenges, and the best way to address them.
As an Holistic Counsellor and Psychotherapist I now know I was not alone. I have met many parents facing similar issues, but at the time, I thought I was the only struggling parent in the entire universe.
A Valve on a Pressure Cooker
I have since realised that this behaviour was her way of telling me that her nervous system had been on heightened alert all day. She was struggling to cope in a new environment that was overwhelming. This behaviour was her way of releasing the tension that had built up during the day, something like the valve on a pressure cooker.
Behaviour as a Means of Communication
When your child displays meltdowns and mood swings, this does not necessarily mean he or she is being naughty, or seeking attention, as may be assumed. Rather, this can be their way of communicating something to you. Instead of punishment and chastisement, could it be that what they are really asking for is connection, support and understanding?
Challenging behaviours may indicate that a 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 that they’re feeling stressed and are struggling to cope. They are asking you 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 an intelligent 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 situation that feels threatening. Your child’s struggle with big feelings they cannot understand will often underlie their 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-regulation of emotions is an important part of your child’s early development. they learn this through being with adults who can role model their own emotional regulation.
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, you probably want to step in and solve your children’s problems for them. 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 learn the skills they need to have a life full of new experiences and the growth in awareness that comes from 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 instinctively. Talking rarely helps – they don’t need a lecture right now, and won’t be able to focus on what you are saying.
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 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 tuning in to 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 way 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 to 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 Counsellor/Psychotherapist 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.