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3 Ways Anxiety May Drive a Child to Act Aggressively

October 5, 2017

 We all know "that child." That "oppositional" child, the one who is prone to hitting others when frustrated, who refuses to follow directions even when spoken to nicely, the one who is quick to use their hands to solve problems rather than use their words. Alternatively, they may be quick to put others down and refuse to accept responsibility for their negative and inappropriate behavior. This kind of child often gets a bad rap. They may be described as "oppositional," "aggressive," and may even be called a "bully."  Adults may theorize they are just trying to get "negative attention," which is an unhelpful interpretation because it frames the child as an irritant rather than a person who needs understanding and guidance for their misguided behavior(s). Yes, attention is what they want, and that is not a bad want.  For many children, attention from their caregivers, particularly positive and affirming attention, is absolutely vital to their sense of security and well-being.  However, busy, stressed and tired parents often miss out on doing this - providing proactive positive and affirming attention.  No wonder some children act "badly" - negative attention may feel better than no attention!


That said, it is not unusual for adults/parents to find it hard to sympathize this type of child, the child who seems resistant to reason and reasonable redirections, because of the harmful actions they have caused towards other children and even adults. Adults may be inclined to be more strict, even rigid, with this child, especially if attempts to help the child see or understand how they have caused harm or hurt are rejected and met with further resistance. 


In this blog, I just want to highlight 3 ways anxiety may be an underlying motivator for this type of "difficult" child who tends to act impulsively, and may refuse to accept responsibility for their behavior when confronted. The reason I wanted to write about this topic is because of how quickly these children get judged, and how difficult it is for adults to empathize with them, when understanding and affirming attention is just what they need.  Particularly when these children are older, as in middle or high school, when we expect children to have learned to exercise better self-control. 


(1) Low Self-Esteem.  The child may subconsciously feel nervous and/or inadequate in the world.  Perhaps they have experienced some kind of relationship loss, such as unexpected abandonment by a parent, or is experiencing an acrimonious divorce between their parents.  Or perhaps they have experienced rejection by peers, perhaps they have a learning deficit that leads to social and academic difficulties at school.  Often children are not able to articulate the source of these underlying feelings, and instead exhibit irritability and the tendency to attack others.  They may feel that getting into trouble is more tolerable than feeling embarrassed and vulnerable about their weaknesses.  Asking this type of child to accept responsibility for their misbehavior without providing some empathy for what motivated them is likely to backfire.  


(2) Traumatic Triggers.  A child who has experienced some kind of trauma, such as witnessing violence at home or in the community, abusive discipline, or even witnessed a bad fight between their parents, may be quickly triggered by benign events that other children would not react as intensely to.  Underlying feelings of worry and fears may easily surface.  It would be important to respond to such a child with supportive calm.  The support of other adults may be needed to help if other children need to be cared for as well while this child is attended to.


(3) Covering up a Glaring Weakness.  As mentioned above, children with a learning disability or attentional deficits may be vulnerable to feeling inadequate, particularly if they have not been identified as such.  Perhaps Johnny is a poor reader would rather be labeled a "bully" or be feared rather than be teased for their reading skills.  Particularly during the first few years of elementary school when reading is a highly targeted skill that reflects achievement status, children learn quickly that they may be perceived as "stupid" if others learn that they struggle in reading.  Now, this is a common misconception, that a child/person who has difficulty reading is "stupid," but unfortunately unless they are taught by sensitive and educated teachers who don't immediately rank children by their reading abilities, children are quick to size each other up.  


What do you think?  Do you see ways that anxiety may be disguised as aggression and oppositionality among your children or the children you work with?


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Contact me: 

Suellen, PhD (PSY27801) 

Licensed Clinical Psychologist


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