We have a terrific question today and that’s what can I do about my anxious child’s temper? This is a really common problem and a typical reason that parents reach out to me. An anxious child often has really difficult behavior, like temper tantrums, meltdowns, and flip outs.
Sometimes this includes screaming at their parents or saying really mean things like, “I hate you. You’re stupid. I wish you’d die.” Sometimes these children are hurting other people, siblings, or pets, or they’re hurting themselves, hitting their own head. Sometimes they’re hurting parents — pushing their parents, or hitting their parents.
Very often, these kids are also trashing rooms. Their parents will send them to their room for some reason, or send them up to bed and the child will tear up their room, break toys, tear up mattresses. Sometimes they’re tearing up other people’s property.
Understandably, parents reach out to me saying, “How do I deal with my anxious child’s temper? They’re out of control. I need help with this behavior!”
But when we’re starting with the behavior, we’re actually starting backwards. One of the very first things that parents do when they join the Child Anxiety Support membership is take a child anxiety assessment so they can get an idea of the shape of their child’s anxious behavior,
Where is it showing up? Are we seeing general anxiety or are we seeing separation anxiety? Are they having somatic symptoms like stomach aches and headaches? Basically how anxious are they? And if we find out they indeed are pretty anxious then we can understand the why behind their behavior, which is that it’s anxiety.
We have to address the anxiety before we can get to the behavior. Now, I’m not saying that angry outbursts or hurting people is acceptable. Of course it’s not, but in order to deal with it, we need to see it through the lens of anxiety and see it through the lens of fight, flight, or freeze and what we’ve got here is kids who are fighting.
Now I absolutely get that parents want to start with behavior. Behavior like this — behavior that’s hurting people — is disruptive. It can be scary. It can be getting the child in trouble at school or with friends. Other family members may be alarmed and telling you’ve got to do something. And you, of course may feel really urgently that something needs to happen, but you need to understand that starting with anxiety is doing something. No, it’s not addressing that big angry behavior. But it’s starting at the front at the tip of that angry iceberg.
One of the resources that I have is a bill of rights for anxious kids. This is based on Ross Green‘s work. He’s the author of the Explosive Child, and he wrote a bill of rights for behaviorally challenged kids that I used as a model for my bill of rights for anxious kids. The gist of it is that when we understand anxieties behind the behavior, we acknowledge that we need to start with anxiety. We need to start with all the anxiety work. That means starting with educating our kids about their anxiety. Building their coping tools and importantly, seeing this as a developmental challenge for our child.
I encourage you to check this out because it’s a paradigm shift, seeing your child as someone who is having a big developmental struggle and not a child who just needs to be parented towards a fix. It’s a lot more complicated than that. Developmental challenges are not the kind of thing that you just start using a different tone or using a specific behavior modification program and it goes away.
Developmental challenges like being an anxious child whose anxiety comes out as anger is a big picture, long range, ongoing pursuit. Now. This does not mean that we give up and let our child’s anger run rampant. No, absolutely not. Reasons are not excuses and being anxious may be a reason, but it does not excuse behavior that hurts people.
However we do need to be realistic. For example, I get lots of calls from parents, with kids who are trashing their rooms. So the first step in that is accepting the fact that you have a child who trashes their room. That’s a fact. And something we’re going to work on, but while we’re working on it, we need to accept that the room is going to get trashed.
So we remove things we don’t want broken. Ideally, we would do this with our child while they are calm and we would talk about it without judgment. It wouldn’t be a punishment or shaming. We might say something like, “I notice that when you’re upset, you really struggle and sometimes that means in your struggle, you are trashing your room. So I need to remove things that we can’t afford to replace, or that might hurt you if they’re broken. Now I know you’re growing and you won’t always be trashing your room.”
You need to say that part because you need to give them hope. You need to show them that you believe in them, even if they don’t believe in themselves and that you believe in their ability to outgrow and get a handle on this behavior.
Now it’s okay to fake it. You may worry that they are going to do this forever, but for now give them hope. Say to them, “I know you won’t always trash your room.” So you remove the things that you need to remove, and then you ask them, “Is there anything that you want to remove?”
The challenge here is it can feel like giving in. It feels like letting them get away with it. If you just accept this behavior as a reality, does that mean you’re condoning? It. No, no, no, no. But in reality, it’s accepting that controlling one’s temper has lots of developmental challenges. These kids have growing frontal lobes growing impulse control and of course, growing in learning to manage anxiety. They’re growing.
Meanwhile, we’re going to work on their anxiety. Not because their behavior is bad. Not because we’re trying to fix the behavior. But because anxiety is difficult and painful. And as our child learns to manage their anxiety, we will see changes in their angry outbursts.
In anxiety we’re working on lots of things.
We’re working on their coping tools, their ability to handle this regulation and discomfort. And the big one is their sense of self. And that’s why hope is so important. If your child sees themselves as someone who is out of control, of course they will act out of control. This is what I mean by accepting that your child is going to act out of control until they don’t. That’s where the hope comes in.
So you say to your child, “You are struggling with this but you will not always struggle. You’re going to get better at it until you get better at it. I need to protect you. I need to protect your siblings, myself, the household, whatever it is.”
Now I want you to think, how would your management of this situation change if you gave up on the idea that your child. Is capable of handling their temper right now. And that is at the heart of Ross Green‘s work, which is kids do well, if they can and is at the heart of the bill of rights for anxious kids.
When we see them as growing individuals who are struggling, then we are working with them with an acknowledgement they’re not ready yet. This is your anxious child with a temper, just like having a toddler who’s a messy eater. Toddlers are going to be messy eaters until they have the skills to eat neatly. Kids who are struggling with their tempers because of anxiety are going to continue to lash out until they have the skills not to. Meanwhile, we work on the anxiety with the understanding that as they get better control over their anxiety, as they grow in those developmental skills — the impulse control, the handling dysregulation, the concept of themselves as someone who can handle things well — we will see changes.
Now it can feel really slow going for the parent and this is why I think it’s so important to have helpers. Whether that’s a therapist, an understanding family member, a group of friends who also have kids with big behaviors. Maybe it’s a support program like mine, but basically people who can help you see the growth, even when you feel stuck in it.
I can remember working with a family who had a child who used to be really destructive — punching holes in walls — and things got better and they got better. Then one day the child slipped because we’re going to slip as we’re growing and punched a hole in the wall again. the parents said, “Oh my gosh, are we right back at the beginning? Are we starting over?”
We were able to look together and say, this is the first time in a long time that my child has done this. They are growing and getting better. Sure, they had a slip, but the work that we’ve done is making a difference. Look at how well they’re doing, let’s look at all of their successes. Then that family was able to share that with the child because they get discouraged, too. They think of themselves as people who are problems, who are upsetting, the family who are destructive, it takes time to change that mindset.
So the answer is what can you do about your anxious child’s temper is accept that the temper is an issue and start making plans to protect the people and things, the household, the other family members and meanwhile, get to work on the anxiety. Accept that your child is going to lash out. Figure out how you would like to keep everybody safe and focus on the anxiety. Usually that means starting with baby steps.
If you’re struggling with this if you’re not sure how to do it please reach out to me and let’s see if child anxiety support could be a help.