How Child Anxiety Can Masquerade as Aggression

Tantrums, irate outbursts, hitting, kicking and other aggressive behavior doesn’t necessarily mean you have an angry child. You may instead have an anxious one. While the more common signs of child anxiety may be clinging and avoidance behaviors, child anxiety can also show itself as aggression. 

Anxiety and the Brain

Anxiety occurs when the brain senses a threat, whether it’s real or imagined. The brain’s amygdala sends hormones and adrenaline to the body, making the body feel quick, powerful and ready for anything. This basic fight of flight response is something that’s felt by everyone at some time or another. It just happens more frequently for those with anxiety.

And while many only experience the fight or flight response when some type of danger is imminent, children with anxiety can experience it anytime, anywhere, and for no apparent reason. Certain circumstances can also prompt it, such as when children are in situations that are unfamiliar, new, stressful or difficult.

The hormones and adrenaline pumped into the body are prompting the body to engage in physical activity – such as fight or flight. When a body takes no action, the physical symptoms of anxiety crop up to provide the neurochemicals with some form of release. Symptoms include:

  • Increased heart rate
  • Stomachache, vomiting
  • Shaking
  • Headache
  • Clammy skin

Anxiety as Aggression

Anxiety that shows up as aggression starts off the same way. The brain perceives a threat and then releases neurochemicals to prompt the body into fight or flight action. In the case of anger and aggression, the choice is made to fight. Tantrums, meltdowns, kicking, screaming, hitting and other displays of hostility may be the result.

You can often determine if your child’s aggression is really anxiety by looking for several clues:

  • Other physical signs of anxiety, such as clammy skin, shaking or stomachache
  • The circumstances that prompted the aggression, such as an unfamiliar or stressful situation
  • A pattern, such as aggressive behavior occurring during times when your anxious child’s emotions are in overdrive

How to Help Your Anxious Child Cope

Because the fight or flight response is instantaneous and happens without our consent or control, your anxious child may be just as befuddled by the aggression as you are. A number of tips can help.

  • Explain Anxiety: Explaining where anxiety comes from can provide your child with great relief. Give your child a rundown on what’s happening in the brain in terms he or she can understand. Also point out that the body’s response is not something we can help, although we can calm the anxious feelings.
  • Practice Mindfulness: Anxiety comes from fretting about what may happen in the future, and mindfulness can bring both you and your anxious child back into the present moment at hand. Our Parent’s Guide to Mindfulness and Anxious Children provides additional details and tips for starting a practice with your anxious child.

Pinpointing the root cause of your child’s aggression is the first step to effectively dealing with it, ultimately helping to ensure a calmer, less stressful life for both you and your child.