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Understanding the Link Between Anxiety and Problem Behavior in Young Kids and How You Can Help

We now know that children’s behavior is always driven by emotions, but what if whatever is driving those emotions is invisible? There are many reasons why kids sometimes behave in ways that leave us in despair and one of these reasons is anxiety.

One thing we know is that many children will go through anxiety at some stage in their lives. Although many of these anxious phases may be difficult to deal with, they are normal phases that mark children’s development. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, few children under 13 suffer from anxiety disorders. In other words, normal anxiety is a part of childhood.

It is not uncommon for kids to portray anxiety-related behaviors when they have to leave their parents, meet new people, or participate in specific activities such as swimming or even going to school. Few parents have escaped the stress associated with separation anxiety. Fear is one of the most common feelings children experience and this often leads to anxiety-related behaviors. An anxious child may be a worrier, she might fear messing up, or she might act clingy especially around difficult situations such as attending school for the first time.

There are times, however, when anxiety in children leads to problem behavior. The biggest problem when dealing with difficult emotions such as anxiety is that, just like for adults, navigating difficult emotions is not always easy. Your child may not know what emotion he is feeling and what that means, and this may lead him to act in inappropriate ways in an attempt to deal with his difficult emotions.

Peter had always been a relatively calm child, but he would frequently throw tantrums that seemed to come out of nowhere. For example, he would be doing a puzzle and all of a sudden, he would be in the middle of a tantrum for no apparent reason. The same pattern continued when he joined school. In the middle of an activity, Peter would suddenly begin to speak or sing loudly and would not leave his classmates in peace. He would throw things around the classroom, clown around, and do almost anything to disrupt the class.

A few sessions with a therapist revealed that Peter’s behavior was driven by anxiety. Peter’s inability to complete an activity gave rise to feelings of shame and fear and his behavior was an attempt to camouflage these feelings. Whenever he was asked to do an activity he felt he was unable to do, Peter became anxious.

Several researchers are now saying that there is a strong link between anxiety and problem behavior. For instance, one study has found that working to decrease anxiety greatly reduces problem behavior in children. In other words, feelings such as shame or fear of embarrassment may explain your child’s disruptive behavior.

Most studies focusing on problem behavior in children have found that promoting low-anxiety environments is a first important step when dealing with problem behavior. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when dealing with your child’s anxiety:

1. Remember that navigating big emotions is difficult, even for adults.

Emotions are a big deal and they can sometimes lead us to behave in ways that surprise even those closest to us. People who have always been taught that emotions should be hidden struggle with difficult emotions all their lives. What is rarely foreseen is how hiding one’s emotions alters one in unaccountable ways.

Helping your child navigate big emotions is an important step toward helping him learn to deal with difficult emotions. This may mean having to learn to deal with your own emotions first. Providing an environment in which emotions are viewed as normal and holding conversations around those emotions is an important phase in helping foster low-anxiety environments. Numerous age-appropriate resources now make it possible to help children learn to identify their emotions, understand what triggers those emotions, and find appropriate strategies to express those emotions.

2. Create emotionally safe environments.

Emotional safety refers to environments in which individuals are able to identity their feelings and feel safe enough to experience those feelings. Although the concept of “emotional safety” is more commonly used in couple’s therapy, it also works in parent-child relationships because it promotes the development of environments in which both parties feel comfortable enough to express themselves.

3. Talk about your personal experiences.

A child suffering from anxiety often believes that she alone experiences this emotion. Talking about your personal experiences with anxiety can help her see that anxiety affects everybody. Beyond talking about anxiety, talk about what you do to handle anxious situations. Helping your child see that anxiety affects everybody and can be managed may help give her the tools she needs to deal with her own anxiety.

4. Know when to worry about your child’s anxiety.

Normal anxiety is rarely excessive. If you feel that your child’s anxiety-related behavior is excessive, disruptive, disproportionate to actual situations and negatively affects her social life or her academic performance, seeking professional help may enable your child to identify an appropriate strategy to help reduce anxiety.

Understanding the Link Between Anxiety and Problem Behavior in Young Kids and How You Can Help

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. (2018). Understanding the Link Between Anxiety and Problem Behavior in Young Kids and How You Can Help. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 26 Sep 2018 (Originally: 26 Sep 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 26 Sep 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.