How Anxiety In Children Relates To Acting Out And What Parents Can Do

anxiety in children

According to the CDC, 7.1% of children aged 3-17 years have diagnosed anxiety. That’s approximately 4.4 million kids. However, the true numbers for anxiety in children are probably larger than these because not every child with anxiety is diagnosed.

The lack of diagnosis is due in part to the fact that anxiety in children shows up in many different ways that can be misunderstood to be many different things (e.g., ADHD, learning issues, chronic somatic complaints, etc). The symptoms of anxiety in children can show up as anything from extreme sensitivities to extreme shyness to temper tantrums to being disruptive in school.

This wide variety in symptoms is due in part to anxiety being based on a physiological response to a perceived threat. When children have anxiety, their bodies automatically maximize their ability to fight or flee. Anxiety is as much a physical sensation for some children as it is an emotional one.

Children who tend toward a “fight” response to anxiety are the ones who may not have the words to express their feelings and may act out their discomfort behaviorally. Espcially when they are not heard or easily understood when they express themselves, these children tend to be the ones who act out and get in trouble.

Once we discover that our child’s acting out could have its roots in anxiety, it is natural to want to protect him from situations they might find threatening. However, this tends to exacerbate rather than reduce the anxiety, reinforcing the feared situation as threatening and to be avoided. As parents protecting our kids from anxiety, we also inadvertently send a dangerous message we don’t believe they can handle the difficult situations they face.  Like with our own anxiety, avoidance tends to worsenanxiety in children.

So, what’s a parent to do when we learn (or suspect) our child is suffering from anxiety?

A recent study at Yale Universitytreated anxiety in children by teaching parents new ways of responding to it. And the results were surprisingly successful.

Dr. Eli Lebowitz, a psychologist at the Yale School of Medicine who developed the program, says “The parent’s own responses are a core and integral part of childhood anxiety.”

This does notmean that our children’s anxiety is our fault. Instead, it means that we play a vital role in helping our children cope with their anxiety. And our role requires that we let our children face their fears.

Letting our children face their fears means we support them by giving them tools and the language skills they need to take control. Here are four key steps to help parents cope  with anxiety in children.

1. Normalize anxiety and other feelings

While too much anxiety can be challengingAnxiety is a normal emotion that everyone experiences at one time or another. It is simply a signal that something we care about needs our attention and we can take action to fix it. Defining anxiety in this way at home can help lay a healthy foundation for how our kids can think about anxiety.

Regularly talking with your child about what and how they are feeling will help them understand it is OK to experience a variety of emotions including anxiety. It will also convey the important message that you care about them deeply, and want to know how they are feeling.

By teaching your child that emotions need not be feared, you are helping decrease their overall anxiety. When she can face her anxiety, she diminishes its power.

When your child can accept anxiety for what it is – a normal emotion – she can use it and the information it carries to fuel solutions, rather than avoidance.

2. Remind your child THEYare in control

One of the most destructive misconceptions about anxiety is that it is out of the anxious person’s ability to control. According to ongoing research, one of the most anxiety-provoking experiences is a sense of being out of control – that something is happening to us.

However, howwe think about anxiety and teach our children to think about it is very much within our control. How we think about something actually defines its impact on us. In 2012, researchers at University of Wisconsin conducted a huge studyand found that how we thinkabout stress, not the amount of it, determines how it impacts us.

Additionally, how we teach our children to label anxiety can help them define their experience of it. Emotional construction is a new science and Lisa Feldman Barrettis at its forefront. She notes that how we think about our physiological experiences actually determines how we feel

So, when your child tells you he is feeling butterflies in his stomach when he thinks about going to school, it doesn’t have to mean that he is going to act out today because he is already feeling anxious.

Instead, you might help him understand those butterflies to be something else – like excitement about seeing his friends in class or learning something new.

It’s all about how we teach our children to think about what they are experiencing.

3. Celebrate being courageous

Catch your child succeeding. Get into the habit of asking her what she did today that was scary. Help her to recognize and celebrate the courage she displays on a daily basis.

Uncontrolled and/or undiagnosed anxiety in children can make their lives more difficult. Yet when we can help them to recognize, acknowledge and celebrate the small wins they have in using their anxiety to help them meet the challengesthey face, rather than feeling threatened, they can begin to understand how to use their anxiety to solve problems they care about. Ultimately, this is how anxiety can make their lives more successful.

4. Build emotional awareness

Making emotions, including anxiety, a typical topic of family conversation can help your child boost his emotional vocabulary. By doing so, we can give them a greater ability to manage their anxiety on their own. Research consistently shows that the better able we are to label our feelings, the better able we are to manage them.

Recommended Reading: Kids Pushing Your Buttons? 4 Steps To Take Control

Dealing with anxiety in children isn’t easy for any parent. It can be difficult to remember how hard it is to be a little person in a body that is still developing and learning how to be in the world. It can also be extremely difficult to fight your natural instinct as a parent to prevent your precious child from being in anxiety-provoking situations.

Yet when we can make a practice of these four steps, we materially help our children move into the drivers seat when it comes to anxiety. When kids feel more control over their emotions, their tendency to act out and get in trouble generally subsides. As they understand their anxiety, and what they can do about it, kids cultivate control, and with practice, this allows them the confidence they need to avoid being triggered.


Looking for more help in understanding adolescent anxiety? Check out my book Hack Your Anxiety full of ways to take control of anxiety from years in the trenches and the latest science, along with two chapters dedicated to support and parenting. Or sign up for my free mini-course on how to use anxiety to your advantage.

Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD