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Frequent Problem Behavior in Your Child? This Might Be Why

Having to deal with problem behavior in your child can leave you feeling frustrated and helpless. But what if this behavior was sparked by anxiety?

A number of studies have found that children’s inability to process difficult emotions often leads to what commonly comes across as “problem” behavior. This may look like uncontrollable tantrums, unpredictability and impulsiveness, extreme clinginess, an inability to do what is expected (for example, an inability to follow simple instructions in school or at home), developmental difficulties, uncontrollable anger, extreme reactions, defiance and aggressive or dangerous behavior that puts your child or those around him in danger.

There is now solid evidence that the behavior of children suffering from high anxiety closely resembles that of children with behavioral disorders.1 What this means is that a child unable to manage her anxiety may be diagnosed as suffering from common disruptive behavior disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD), conduct disorder or oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).  

Part of the problem associated with misdiagnosis lies in the fact that it is not always easy to establish what drives your child’s behavior. When dealing with a violent or extremely disruptive child, it may be difficult to make the connection between anxiety and the behavior displayed. In other words, a highly anxious child will not tell you that he doesn’t want to go for his swimming class because he doesn’t know how to swim and is scared of making a fool out of himself. What he is likely to do is go into defense mode to avoid that class, and this may translate into disruptive behavior, aggressive behavior toward his classmates, disrespect and a refusal to follow instructions, and so on. In reality, all these are simply attempts to escape his swimming lessons.

Problem behavior is often an attempt to escape from anxiety-provoking situations and other difficult emotions associated with such situations. By this I mean that although anxiety may be the primary emotion experienced, other secondary emotions such as fear, panic or shame can also develop alongside the primary emotion.

That said, all hope is not lost. Indeed, being aware that anxiety or other strong emotions may be behind your child’s behavior is a great starting point to help you deal with problem behavior more effectively.

Here are three things you can start doing today to better manage the impact of emotions on your child’s behavior:

1) Get the conversation about emotions going.

How would you define frustration? Emotions are not always easy to put into words, even for adults; imagine how hard it can be for your child to navigate big emotions. The first and most important thing to do is to teach her about different emotions using age-appropriate techniquesShe needs to know that she is safe to express her emotions.

Appropriate techniques for kids include games, holding conversations around characters in the book she’s reading (“He sure looks sad”), asking the right kind of questions (“what made you happy today?” talking about your own emotions (I was sad when…), and so on.

2) Learn to anticipate anxiety-provoking issues.

The thing with anxiety is that it’s pretty good at hiding, but there are always ways to get around it. The easiest way is to pay close attention to your child’s behavior in order to determine anxiety-triggering situations. It is always easier to deal with a highly anxious child before the situation gets out of hand. What you need to remember is that just like in adults, there is a strong link between anxiety and a need for reassurance — You matter, no matter what!

Ultimately, teaching your child to identify how his body feels when he’s feeling anxious is a great way to help him learn to identity and manage anxiety by himself.

3) Teach your child to succeed on her own.

Dealing appropriately with strong emotions is about having a set of tools, some form of “tool box” that your child can use any time she needs to. Help your child identify appropriate responses to anxiety. Help her come up with “power cards” that give her a visual example of how she can deal with anxiety. Let her know that she has what it takes to deal with strong emotions by herself. No one said this will be easy, but by taking small steps toward the development of your child’s emotional intelligence, she is bound to get there.

Anxiety in children is a very common phenomenon and often lessens with time as your child learns to better react to difficult situations. That said, it can also be a sign of a more serious problem. Please seek professional help if none of your attempts seem to be working or if you feel unable to manage this behavior on your own.

Frequent Problem Behavior in Your Child? This Might Be Why

Footnotes:

  1. Moskowitz , L.J., Walsh, C.E., Mulder, E., McLaughlin, D.M., Hajcak, G., Carr, E.G., & Zarcone, J.R. (2017). Intervention for Anxiety and Problem Behavior in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder and Intellectual Disability. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47(12): 3930-3948.Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28283846 []


Sanya Pelini, PhD

Sanya Pelini holds a Ph.D. in educational research. She shares tools to help foster children’s emotional regulation on her blog and is the author of The Emotions Kit, a toolkit with practical resources to help kids learn to identify and manage strong emotions such as anger and anxiety in a socially appropriate manner.


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APA Reference
Pelini, S. (2019). Frequent Problem Behavior in Your Child? This Might Be Why. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 13, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/frequent-problem-behavior-in-your-child-this-might-be-why/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 9 Feb 2019
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 9 Feb 2019
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.