Monday, December 11, 2023

It’s Anxiety, Not “Bad Behavior”

Ever wonder where the feelings of anger or outbursts that your child or teen is experiencing come from? I’m sure you have heard of fight or flight responses, right? Well, most of the time the negative behaviors we see in our kids are fueled by anxiety that comes from the child’s or teen’s perception of a threat, combined with the sudden feeling of being out of control. This is why it’s so important to treat anxiety-fueled behavior (even when it manifests as a tantrum, meltdown, or snarky back-talk), as just that - anxiety, and not as “bad behavior.”

The first step to understanding our child’s or teen’s crazy-making behavior is asking the right questions. Instead of automatically beginning to think of what will make this [behavior] stop, try asking yourself what your child/teen is actually feeling and what they need in this moment to feel more in control so they are able to calm down. When in doubt, simply by remaining calm and showing your kiddo that you are there for them can often help bring the behavior down a few notches. Then there are a few other steps you can take to try and work through the moment completely. 

Validate - We often get confused and think that validation means approval or “saying it’s okay.” That’s not necessarily the case. Just focus on letting your child or teen know that you see and hear them, and acknowledging that their reaction is big because their feelings are big. The best thing to do is focus less on how to stop the feelings and more on the feelings themselves. Kids will pick up on this and be less on the defense if they think the adult doesn’t have “an agenda.”

Reflect - The most lasting lessons we can teach our children and teens do not come from punishments when their behavior isn’t what we want it to be. The most valuable teaching moments, where we can create room for change, usually happen in the time after the crisis. We should avoid exhibiting anger or disappointment or inflicting punishment. Instead, we should ask the hard questions to get both us and our kiddos thinking about what is really going on. Starting with the most simple, “What happened?” can often lead to very valuable conversations. 

Keep Calm - It’s important to do this not just in the moment (which sometimes can be very difficult), but also in the aftermath. It can be easy to feel overwhelmed by both the child’s/teen’s behavior and our reactions, but this is a marathon not a sprint. Just like adults have moments when their behavior isn’t what they want it to be, so do our kiddos. No one is perfect, and it’s important to be generous with them and with ourselves so that we can commit to bettering ourselves over time. 

We should not forget that the work we need to do to manage anxiety and related behaviors is not just in the moment and the immediate aftermath, but in our everyday lives. Some things we can do to help kids learn to manage their anxiety (and practice regularly in calm moments) so that it doesn’t result in angry blowups are: 

Breathing Exercises - Teaching kids how to control their breathing as a regulation strategy will literally cause their brain to start the calm-down process and automatically kick in when anxious.

Mindfulness - We know that anxiety only exists when our brains focus too much on the future when we are stressed. If we can use mindfulness techniques to keep our kids in the present moment of a current, specific situation, there is a lot less room for anxiety to slide in.

Sing their Praises - When anger or tantrums become more frequent, it can be easy to focus only on the negative but we need to make sure we take time to build up our kiddos and focus on their strengths. 

Anxiety doesn’t have to rule our kids or us. It’s a sign that something needs our attention. So, paying attention to the underlying cause of the anxiety instead of focusing on behavior change is a much more valuable lesson that we can all carry for a lifetime.