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 anxious 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 “attention seeking”. Rather, this can be their way of trying to tell you something. 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. Your child’s behaviours are a good indication that they are reacting to a situation where they feel threatened. They are generally struggling with some really big feelings that they don’t understand.
Understanding the “why” behind such behaviours can give us a clue to the best to way to respond. Learning how to manage this distress is an important part of your child’s early development. They learn this when feeling safe with an emotionally regulated adult.
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 allowing them the space to learn resilience. In this way they can learn the skills they need to be confident to embrace new experiences, and deal with life’s inevitable stresses.
Your child will feel safe when you are able to be present with them in their distress. It will help if you are aware of your own emotional responses, and how this feels in your body. Your anxious child can learn to develop resilience through watching how you respond to stress.
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.
Circle of Security Parenting
You might also like to consider the internationally recognised Circle of Security Parenting program. This is an 8 week relationship-based early intervention parenting program. It is designed to help build connection and understanding, and can be offered either individually, or in small groups. Feedback from parents has always been very positive, with one parent saying “all parents should do this course”.
The Next Step
In order to support your children, sometimes it is necessary to address your own anxieties. This is a perfectly normal process, and my role is to support you in your own healing process. The benefits for you and your children can extend beyond just behavioural changes. You will likely find the impact flows into other areas of their lives – social, emotional, physical and academic.
A PACFA accredited Holistic Counsellor and Psychotherapist, Rosalind is also a Registered NDIS Provider, Circle of Security Facilitator and approved Victims Services Counsellor.
Sessions are available in person at Moruya South Head, and online via zoom.