A child who appears to be defiant or aggressive may be reacting to anxiety—anxiety he may, depending on his age, not be able to articulate effectively, or not even fully recognize that he’s feeling. Especially in younger kids with anxiety you might see freezing and clinging kind of behavior.
Anxiety manifests in a surprising variety of ways in part because it is based on a physiological response to a threat in the environment, a response that maximizes the body’s ability to either face danger or escape danger. So, while some children exhibit anxiety by shrinking from situations or objects that trigger fears, some react with overwhelming need to break out of an uncomfortable situation. That behavior, which can be unmanageable, is often misread as anger or opposition.
Anxiety is one of those diagnoses that is a great masquerader. It can look like a lot of things. Particularly with kids who may not have words to express their feelings, or because no one is listening to them, they might manifest their anxiety with behavioral dysregulation.
The more commonly recognized symptoms of anxiety in a child are things like trouble sleeping in his own room or separating from his parents, avoidance of certain activities, a behaviorally inhibited temperament.
Anxiety can look like defiance. If your child refuses to do something, it can be because of their fear about a situation rather than their defiance. When a parent or a teacher understands the anxiety underlying the defiance, rather than assuming that the child is actively trying to make them miserable, it changes their approach.
Coach Benjamin Mizrahi. Educator. Learning Specialist. Family Coach. Father. Husband.
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