Anxiety and Aggression: Part I

Anxiety is something far better understood today than it has been in even our recent past. Thanks to some phenomenal researchers, a proliferation of accessible information and a movement that’s slowly seeing the stigma associated with mental health lifting, most people are now fairly familiar with the concept of anxiety. Many can explain it. Even more can identify with it; either through their own experience or that of someone they love.

But the anxiety most describe, particularly when it comes to children, looks something like this: sweaty hands, nervous tension, clinginess. Tears of panic bought on by excessive worry or fear. Perhaps a withdrawing that looks a lot like shyness. All of these symptoms and responses can absolutely be typical of anxiety.

Anxiety as aggression

But anxiety can show up in a much different costume too. Yelling, punching, pushing, hitting or other aggressive behaviours are actually common manifestations for anxious kids. This occurs when the brain signals imminent danger (cue ANXIETY!) and rather than flight or freeze, the physiological response unconsciously selected is ‘fight’. The anger and aggressive behaviours displayed are simply a by-product of the anxiety the child is experiencing.

You see, when we are experiencing anxiety, our body is flooded with neurochemicals signalling the flight-fight-or-freeze response. Our executive functions are suppressed in favour of survival, despite the fact that our lives may not actually be under threat! At times, the brain can’t tell the difference between real or imagined threat and it doesn’t care – it’s job is to keep us safe so it will sound the alarm regardless.

In children, who already have underdeveloped executive functions, the part of the brain that inhibits inappropriate behaviours is rendered ineffective as the brain attempts to negotiate it’s heightened state. Any chance the child has of shutting down their desire to kick/ punch/ yell defensively is wiped out. In essence, they simply cannot help how they are behaving.

Ignore them: your child isn’t being ‘naughty’

Understood this way, it’s clear to see the behaviour is not naughtiness, or “bad behaviour”. But there is a better response pattern that, with time and the correct support, children can learn to access in moment when they feel anxious.

How you can help your child?

This is a topic worthy of it's own post! There are lots of things we can do to support children prone to anxiety, including those who's anxiety presents as anger or aggression. Check back next week when we'll be sharing our favourite strategies and suggestions.