Parenting Anxious Kids

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How To Manage Misbehaviour In Kids With Anxiety

BY BRITTANY MCGILL

Kids who suffer from anxiety are more prone to irritability and anger. Constant worry gives them a shorter fuse and this can lead to uncharacteristic misbehaviour like talking back to family members (including parents) and aggression.

Kids with anxiety are more prone to meltdowns

Kids with anxiety are more prone to anger, irritability, and emotional meltdowns

Take for example a child who has Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) who throws their dinner plate on the floor because their OCD has convinced them that their food is contaminated and they will get sick if they eat it. Is this misbehaviour? Yes. But it’s misbehaviour that’s driven by significant distress and not ‘naughtiness’.

Which begs the question – if my child is behaving because they’re anxious, how do I manage this? Should I tread more gently when they do something wrong to avoid making them too upset?

The most important thing to remember is that clear boundaries help kids to feel safe. Changing the rules or giving your child special treatment because of their anxiety might help to alleviate your parent guilt and your child’s distress at the time, but it will actually make your child feel unsafe and more anxious with time.

Regardless of whether misbehaviour is anxiety-driven or not, boundaries are helpful. Treating your anxious child differently by ‘letting them off the hook’ can lead to conflict between siblings and it can also mean that your child will be less motivated to try and regulate their distress meaning that they won’t have the opportunity to learn important emotion regulation skills.

Setting boundaries doesn’t necessarily have to be done through punishment. In fact, excessive negative attention (such as scolding or long lectures) can actually give fuel to challenging behaviour, whether it’s anxiety driven or not. Clear boundaries can be set by increasing positive attention (whether through concrete rewards or verbal praise) for ‘brave’ behaviour and reducing attention for misbehaviour, or by introducing ‘cool down’ time (this works by establishing a cool down area where your child can go to calm themselves when they show early signs of frustration or distress).

If you’re ever in doubt about how best to handle misbehaviour in your anxious child, ask what would I do if my child wasn’t anxious? Your child may need your compassion, but they also need your boundaries.

A clinical psychologist can assist you in developing effective tools to manage your child’s anxiety and misbehaviour.

Brittany McGill is a clinical psychologist registrar who completed her postgraduate clinical training at the University of New South Wales. She is interested in anxiety and mood disorders across the lifespan and uses cognitive-behavioural and other evidence-based strategies to help people achieve positive change in their lives.


 

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