When our children exhibit disruptive behavior and appear to be out of control, we can feel helpless and sometimes hopeless. When we realize that their actions are no longer isolated events but have become part of a distressing routine, our mind may come up with myriad of solutions. When our children have anxiety and we know that this a contributing factor, our amazing problem-solving machine — the mind, might also say to us, “You are a terrible parent. It’s your fault.”
This is a thought that our mind is providing to help us make sense of the situation. It is only trying to find a solution to match our distress and our child’s behavior. Those thoughts may match the situation, but it is not helpful and is simply not the case!
ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) therapists often remind their clients that the mind is like an advisor that provides counsel, but sometimes it may not be useful. When our children suffer, we feel their pain and our mind wants to assist us! When our thoughts, feelings and urges become entangled, we end up believing what the mind is saying. As parents we need to recognize that we would not be experiencing those feelings of inadequacy if we didn’t care and love our children as much as we do!
When it comes to helping anxious children, parents can remember that knowledge is power. They can use what they know about their mind to make better decisions, continue with hope, and remember that change is possible.
The fight or flight response. This is the human instinct for survival. Adults and children who struggle with anxiety may be unaware of this automated system that is built to protect them from threatening situations. They may only be aware of their discomfort and unpleasant feelings. Their immediate defense may be to avoid the situation. When children feel overwhelmed, aggressive behavior may also be observed.
Our internal experiences such as thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges are private events because no one can know exactly how we feel. Those around us can guess how we feel based on our behavior. When anxious children’s internal experiences are in a snarl, their actions will likely show up in a similar way. It is their conduct that we see and tells us when something is amiss.
The plasticity of the brain.1 Our actions, emotions and thoughts contribute to our brain’s capability to continue to change. Whenever we learn something new, our brain changes, and it will continue to change throughout our lives.
For example, if we want to learn to play the guitar, the first time we have a lesson there will be thousands of neurons firing together. Chemicals in the brain will be released and a short-term memory will be created. If we only practice once a month, the neurons that fired together won’t have a chance to wire enough, and the learning that took place will only stay in the short-term memory.
On the other hand, if we practice consistently every day for a longer period of time, our learning will be long lasting. Structural and functional changes take place in the brain, which make it possible to develop a new skill or habit. This happens as we do something consistently.
Likewise, when children feel overwhelmed by the sensations they don’t understand, they may exhibit disruptive behavior. Whatever happens before, during, and after will be placed in the child’s short-term memory. When the behavior repeats and the response is consistent, whether helpful or unhelpful, the amazing neuroplasticity will take place, as neurons will wire together reinforcing the particular behavior.
Awareness. Research indicates that the best chance to have a change in our brain is what we do.1 As we think about the neuroplasticity of the brain, parents can take courage in knowing that they can be the catalysts in helping their anxious children. Becoming aware of your internal experiences and what you do with them is a great start.
Keep a log of what happens before, during and after the disruptive behavior. Noticing can empower you to become more confident in your parenting. Consider answering the following questions:
- What may be the triggering point to your child’s temper tantrum? For example, the situation, circumstances, people, and time of the day. Write it down as soon as you get a chance.
- Notice your private experiences (thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges) as your child exhibits the negative behavior. Are you becoming entangled with these internal events?
- Become aware of your words, tone of voice, posture, demeanor, and behavior when your child is triggered. Notice if those were helpful or unhelpful. Was today typical? What was different today and notice if your child responds differently when you change something?
- Notice your child’s response and your internal experiences after what happened.
- When your children’s behavior escalates, do you feel triggered and how do you respond to your child’s escalation? Write down your thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges.
- Keep a log for a week or two.
- What did you discover? Is there anything that may be reinforcing your children’s disruptive behavior besides their anxious mind?
Though there is no formula for parents when their children’s behavior is disruptive, there are many resources to aid you. Consult with a treatment provider who knows how to treat anxiety disorders and is experienced in working with children. Take courage and don’t forget that change is possible and doable! Be patient and never lose hope! Awareness is the first step. You can start today!
- Boyd, L. (2015, November). After watching this, your brain will not be the same [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LNHBMFCzznE.