3 Reasons Why Anxiety Can Present as Anger in Kids and How to Help
If your child struggles with anxiety, you have likely seen bouts of crying, avoidance, stomach aches, headaches, and poor focus. In some cases, the brain’s fear response can “hijack” your child’s entire body creating outbursts of anger as well.
Understanding what happens in your child’s brain when anxiety presents as anger can help you better guide them through these difficult moments.
Anxiety Induces a Stress Response Similar to Fear
Anxiety is an automatic reaction to a perceived threat. When threatened, the fight or flight response can easily be triggered.
This means that when your child experiences anxiety (or even just anticipation), their body prepares itself for danger or threat by releasing stress hormones like cortisol into their bloodstream. This helps them react quickly–but it can also make them highly irritable and angry!
While everyone experiences stress from time to time, kids with anxiety disorders tend to experience stressors more often than other kids because of how their brains are wired. They process information differently in both their conscious and subconscious minds and as a result, are more likely to become tense and react negatively.
Kids with Anxiety Are Susceptible to Internalizing Their Fears
It’s important to note that some kids with anxiety are more likely to internalize their fears. They may not always externalize them in the same way as other children do, who may cry, complain of physical symptoms, or become outwardly angry. Instead, these kids may become withdrawn or isolate but still feel stressed and irritated.
Kids with anxiety are also more likely to be perfectionists and set very high standards for themselves–and this can make it difficult for them when things don’t go exactly according to plan. Has your child every “lost it” when they can’t get their school project “perfect” or the way they want it? Internalizing their fears may work for a while but sooner or later, meltdowns ensue due to the pressure of holding them in.
Kids with Anxiety Tend to Have Higher Levels of Negative Thoughts
Kids with anxiety tend to have higher levels of negative thoughts and self-talk. As a result, instead of dealing with their worries head on, they may lash out at others around them in order to distract or avoid thinking about whatever makes them anxious. For example:
- A child who feels anxious about going on stage for her school play might lash out at her best friend because she doesn’t want her talking about the play anymore;
- A child who feels nervous about making friends in middle school might snap at his mom when she asks if he wants help doing his homework; and
- An adolescent girl who was bullied by another teen online may tell herself harshly over and over again that she deserves being treated badly because “no one could possibly like someone like her anyway.”
4 Tips on Managing Your Child’s Anger
Whether your child is dealing with normal feelings of anger or anger as a result of anxiety, it’s important to help your child manage their anger in a responsible way. Here are 4 suggestions.
Recognize that Anger is a Normal Emotion
Feelings of anger are completely normal at any age. It’s important to approach your child with this understanding.
Your job is not to stop them from feeling anger. It’s to help them calm down and eventually process their anger in constructive, not destructive ways.
You might try the following statements to help calm your child:
- “It’s OK to be angry. Would you like my help?”
- “I love you and you’re safe.”
- “Given what happened, I can understand why you’re angry.”
Stay Calm Yourself
It’s important to remain calm when your child is having an outburst of anger, even on those days when you feel yourself getting triggered. Staying calm will not only help keep the situation under control, but you’ll also be modeling how to manage strong emotions.
Here are some ways you can keep your own anger in check with confronted with an angry child:
- Breathe deeply
- Use positive self-talk
- Focus on your child’s resilience and strengths
- Remind yourself of how much you love your child
- Do not take your child’s anger personally
Validate Your Child’s Anger
Never tell your child they shouldn’t feel something they’re feeling. If they feel frustrated or angry, chances are there’s a good reason. Validate their anger.
This can be as simple as saying, “You seem very upset right now,” instead of saying, “Hey, calm down, there’s no reason to get so angry.” Validating their feelings will help them identify their emotions and not feel bad or ashamed of them.
At the same time, it’s important not to condone destructive behavior. If your child is hitting, lashing out or out of control, let them know there are better ways to express their anger.
You might try the following statements:
- “It’s okay to be angry, but I won’t allow you to get physical. We need to make sure everyone is safe.”
- “It’s not OK to…would you like to try…instead?”
- “I can see you’re really angry with me. Can we start over?”
- “Is there anything you need me to understand?”
- “I’m getting frustrated, and I’m going to move over here to calm down.”
Help Them Release Their Energy
Help your child deal with their anger in positive versus negative ways. Very young children may want to draw or paint a picture of their anger. Older children may want to jump on a trampoline or kick a ball around in the backyard. Teens may want to lift weights or go for a run to release their energy. Squeezing stress balls and bubble wrap are also creative ways to get the anger out.
Feeling anger is a natural part of life. You haven’t failed as a parent nor is your child “bad” for experiencing anger. Anger exists and we all have to learn to process it in healthy ways. This is even more important if your child has anxiety. Educating yourself on what happens in your child’s brain when anxiety results in anger can help you better guide them through stressful situations.
Begin Online Therapy for Kids and Teens with Anxiety in Illinois
If your child or teen is struggling with anxiety, there is hope! Anxiety is highly treatable and online anxiety treatment at Briefly Counseling can help.
Using Solution-Focused Brief Therapy, I help kids and teens reduce their anxiety and build resilience so they can become a happier, more confident version of themselves.
And kids love being able to receive counseling from the comfort and privacy of their own home. Studies have consistently proven that online therapy delivers equal results to in-office counseling.
As an experienced and caring therapist, I love providing counseling for anxiety. To start your child’s counseling journey, call me at 224-236-2296 or email Helena@BrieflyCounseling.com to schedule a FREE 20-minute consultation.
Helena Madsen, MA, LCPC is the founder of Briefly Counseling. I specialize in providing online short-term anxiety treatment for kids and teens ages 7 – 18 as well as Christian counseling.
Whether you’re on the North Shore, in Naperville, Chicago, Champaign, Barrington, Libertyville, Glenview, or downstate Illinois, I can help. Schedule your appointment or consultation today. I look forward to working with your child to quickly and effectively help them in activating their strengths, resources, and resilience, in order to live with confidence and hope.