Aggression or Anxiety? Find Out What’s Really Behind Your Child’s Behaviors

(Inside: When your child acts out with aggression, is it really aggression or could it be anxiety? Find out what’s really going on behind your child’s behaviors!)

This morning my son woke up and was a little groggy getting up out of bed.

Normally he lets me help him get out of bed, and get out the door, and get started, but today he argued with me every step of the morning.

We calmed him as much as we possibly could, and we sent him off to school.

I got a phone call at abut 8:30, he was completely obstinate. Refusing to do any of the things that his school was asking him to do.

So they intervened… They tried the meds… They tried his calming strategies…

But nothing was working.

He was still having an aggressive meltdown.

Aggression or Anxiety? Find Out What's Really Behind Your Child's Behaviors

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Then, all of a sudden a light bulb went off… My husband said, “Hey, did you tell them about the trigger of the birthday party?”

See, my youngest daughter went to a birthday party last night.

She got to go to Chuck E. Cheese.

My son has severe sensory differences, and struggles with loud noises, and places with lots of people around.

Going to Chuck E. Cheese is a really hard thing for him, but he loves it, and he seeks it.

So that already was causing some frustration for him, but he wasn’t able to tell us that.

On the surface he acted excited and interested in all the things she did, but it was there underneath, agitating him.

And then tonight his younger brother gets to go to laser tag for a birthday party. So both of his siblings are going to birthday parties, and he is not included.

So this morning when he woke up he realized he doesn’t have a lot of friends, he’s not able to go to laser tag, and he held that in.

And once he got to school it was just so much, he didn’t even know that’s what he was frustrated about, or what he was processing.

So what was really at the root of this problem this morning, is that there was anxiety, and there was worry…

Aggression or Anxiety? Find Out What’s Really Behind Your Child’s Behaviors

They seem to go from zero, to 100 in a matter of seconds, and you just can’t figure out why they’re so angry?

Why they are melting down?

Why they are pushing their brother and sister?

And why they’re throwing these huge tantrums, or meltdowns?

Well, just the other day I was talking to a really good friend of mine whose daughter does not like to go to kindergarten, and who will put up a fight every morning before school.

And when I was telling her about some of the tools and strategies that we have had success with,vshe said, “Oh, well my daughter is not anxious so that won’t work for us. I don’t really have a kid who has worries.”

And it made me realize so many times I hear people tell me…

  • My kid doesn’t have worries
  • My kid doesn’t have anxiety
  • My kid just doesn’t like school
  • My kid doesn’t want to do this
  • My kid is just strong will, or stubborn

We’re just so opposed to using the word anxiety because it has a stigma attached, and we’re worried that there’s something wrong with us if we do have anxiety.

But I’m here to tell you a very surprising fact that I learned, that changed the way I looked at my son.

It changed the way I looked at all of my kids, and their behavior. And I think it could help you.

What is Anxiety, Really?

When we talk about anxiety, what is anxiety, really?

Anxiety is something that we all have.

In fact, it’s something that is so deep rooted in us, that it helped protect us in the cave man era.

Our anxiety serves an important purpose… It’s what tells us “I think a bear is coming I should probably not run towards that bear and give it a big nice hug and pet it on it’s back.”

It protects us. It tells us that there’s an alarm.

Anxiety is our body’s way of alarming us of danger.

Now, what happens then in our body when that signal goes off, is that we have a response to that signal?

We end up what happens when that signal goes off, is that our brain tells our body to do a few things.

Aggression or Anxiety? Find Out What's Really Behind Your Child's Behaviors

Understanding the Fight Response

So if you have a child who is very aggressive, seems to go from zero, 100 in a matter of seconds guess what?

They are most likely having that fight reaction to an alarm that is going off in their brain, but they can’t communicate with you.

It is probably something that they don’t even realize is happening to them, and so it seems like it’s going from zero, to 100 in a matter of seconds.

Think of the story with my son this morning…

He was not aggressive when he woke up. And if I had missed his tiny behaviors all morning, the school and I would’ve thought that he was going from zero, to 100, but he wasn’t.

What happened was… all these little tiny anxiety alarms were going of in his body, and he wasn’t recognizing or processing them.

So over time, those little triggers kept building, and building until finally …

He blew his lid.

He held it together as long as he could…

But once he was at school and all of the triggers had built up, his fight, flight, and freeze responses to anxiety were kicked on.

First he started fighting. He fought with his words, calling people names and telling people to go away.

And then the flight response hit and he tried to hide, but because the school wanted to make sure that he was safe, they kept him in one room.

So he actually went to a cabinet, pulled everything out of the cabinet, which looks like aggression and anger, and he tried to hide inside the cabinet.

It was his flight response to that anxiety that had been building up all morning…

But at this point he still hadn’t identified what his main trigger was.

It wasn’t until I got to the school, sat down with him, and knew all the little triggers. So I could help him to process.

So I said, “Hey buddy can you talk to me about what it is you’re hoping will happen? Can you talk to me about something that might be irritating you? Or something that might be frustrating you? Let’s go over some of the things.”

But I didn’t always recognize triggers or understand the anxiety lurking beneath the aggression…

At first, we were trying all these behavior tactics.

We tried rewards. We tried punishment. We tried time out.

But no matter what we tried, he was still having melt downs, and he was still having days where he still was struggling.

And it wasn’t until we had this aha moment where we realized that most of his behaviors were attached to anxiety.

So we started doing a lot of emotion coaching, and a lot of self-regulation, and taught him a lot of calm down tools.

And today, when he was struggling with anxiety, I was able to help him recognize what was triggering that response.

Behavior is Communication

But we didn’t take his behaviors as him being mean or rude or disrespectful. We took it as communication.

We were able to look beyond his behaviors to see what he was really communicating. His anxiety.

When our children act out with aggressive behavior we have to think, “what are they trying to tell us?”

Oftentimes there is a worry, a frustration, an excitement at the bottom of that aggression that they are unable to process, that they don’t even know is there.

And, all of it is rooted in that natural anxiety that all of us have, that keeps us safe. That alarm system that triggers the fight, flight, or freeze response.

They’re having these alarms go off in their body, but they’re not recognizing those alarms.

They’re not recognizing that their stomach’s starting to turn, or that their eyes are starting to furrow, or that their palms are starting to sweat.

They’re not recognizing it because they haven’t had the resources to learn those different levels that they’re going through.

So eventually they just pop, and a lot of times that’s what’s happening.

I want you to remember that when your child is acting aggressively, or angry, I don’t want you to call them bad or mean.

It’s hard, but I want you to take a step back and think, “why are they doing this? What are they trying to communicate to me? And what could be at the root of this?”

I challenge you to dig deeper to see what’s really behind that defiant behavior, or any behavior you’re struggling with…

Because your child’s behaviors are much like an iceberg. On the surface you see…

* a child that is clingy and doesn’t like to be alone,
* a child that crosses his arms and shuts down
* a child that is scared of ever getting a wrong answer
* a child that doesn’t like to go new places
Or a child that becomes “hyper” when new guests arrive at your house.

It’s easy to look at these behaviors as just what we see. It’s easy to make assumptions about why our children are acting out or doing inexplicable things.

However, I challenge you to look for the other 85%. Look deeper.

What’s hiding behind what you see?

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