How does a parent differentiate between “bad” behavior and anxious behavior?
When someone is anxious, a lot happens on the inside: thoughts, emotions, internal conversations and debates. But as any parent with a worried child knows, there’s a whole lotta action on the outside, too: yelling, begging, crying, and debates that are far from internal.
How about loud, heated, and repetitive? Many parents ask me about dealing with the behavior of their anxious child. What should they accept? How much should they tolerate?
Remember, when dealing with anxiety, it helps to imagine the worry as a “part” of your child that demands two things: certainty and comfort.
fight, flight or freeze
Worry will go to great lengths to avoid situations that make it (and thus your child) feel uncomfortable and uncertain. When children feel unable to handle something, they move quickly into avoidance. If pushed, they will then go into fight, flight or freeze. And that’s when you will likely have a battle on your hands.
Of course, simply forcing your child to step into situations without tools to manage her anxious thoughts and physical sensations won’t work in the long term. The goal is to help your child learn how to tolerate uncertainty, be flexible, and manage uncomfortable sensations … and, manage their behavior.
Effective strategies do this for children and families. As a family is learning to handle the behavior in different ways, I almost always offer this important directive.
Do not tolerate unacceptable behavior in your anxious child that you wouldn’t tolerate in others.
Is it okay for your child to hit? Scream at you and others? Demand you do things for him? Refuse to follow family rules?
When I begin working with a family, we talk about how the worry behaves in order to avoid and stay comfortable. Often, though, I’ll discover pretty quickly that this same “tantruming” behavior occurs in other situations that have nothing to do with anxiety.
Mom may report, “He screams at me when I tell him to get off the computer, too. Or when I remind him to brush his teeth. If I make something for dinner he doesn’t like, he throws himself on the floor, or even swears at me.”
You see, when a behavior works in one area, it can spread like a cold in a kindergarten classroom.
Even though the initial source of the behavior may have been anxious refusal, if it works here, why not give it a try over there, too?
Parents can get worn out by the maintenance of a worried child. They stop setting limits in lots of areas; and the child gains more and more control. Sometimes, siblings catch on, too.
Steps to address behavior in your anxious child
Begin learning the strategies for dealing with anxious behavior. When you accommodate anxious tantruming, the anxiety and its controlling behaviors will get stronger…and it will happen quickly.
You must stay calm. Ask yourself (or your spouse) what kind of behavior you’re modeling. When your child refuses or tantrums, do you escalate, too? If there is a lot of yelling going on in your home, then all family members need to learn emotional management. Yelling is not a skill…it’s an emotional reaction.
Intermittent reinforcement, or giving in SOMETIMES, makes a behavior much STRONGER. Think of slot machines in a casino. If a child learns that a behavior works, especially just sometimes, that behavior will be CEMENTED into their little brains. Calm consistency is the name of the game.
Find your parenting mantra
Have a phrase that you repeat when confronted with the tantrum behavior. Something like, “I know your worry is bossing you around right now, but I’m not going to let it boss me around. You can use your strategies to calm down, and then we can problem solve.”
Do not punish the behavior, but do not allow it to continue (remove the child from the area, for example) and be clear that such behavior does not work in your family.
One family I worked with tried to get their four-year-old to sleep in her own bed. She threw a tantrum, the parents gave in, and 9 years later, they were still giving in. It was getting crowded in that bed!
Your job as a parent is to set firm, loving boundaries.
This is extremely important for anxious children as well, because they will adopt avoidance and refusal as their life strategy.
Remember, allowing your child’s anxiety to run the house is not helpful to your child.
Setting limits and learning strategies is not mean. Remaining firm and consistent will not damage your child; allowing a very treatable problem to continue will.