Anxiety: Afraid or Angry?

When human beings think they’re in danger, they react with either ‘fight’ or ‘flight’. These reactions are hard-wired in us, but we all respond differently. A child’s behavior when he is anxious or worried may be in the ‘fight’ mode, with disruptive, oppositional, explosive, angry, or a melt-down – trying to overcome the source of the fear by force. Another child’s behavior may be in the ‘flight’ mode, with inattentive, clingy, withdrawn, reassurance-seeking, or shyness – trying to escape the source of the fear. Unfortunately, behaviors in the ‘fight’ category can be mistaken for anger as they look similar to angry behaviors. Anxiety is often experienced as a fast heartbeat, shallow quick breathing, and discomfort in the tummy, but these sensations are also associated with being angry. It’s important to know the difference, because the way we react to a child’s anxiety is different from the way we react to a child’s anger.

While the principles of changing any behavior are fundamentally the same, parents respond quite differently to their child’s anxiety and anger. When parents perceive that their child is anxious, they become anxious themselves – there are few things that distress a parent more than thinking that their child is afraid. In this state, parents may relax their rules in an attempt to make sure they don’t make the child more afraid. This may have the undesired effect of making the child more anxious – as the parent withdraws control, the child feels less secure. In contrast, when parents perceive that their child is angry, they may be prompted to fight back – taking the child’s antisocial behavior as a personal attack or feeling intimidated. In this state, parents may retaliate with anger, trying to halt the aggression with force. But, if the child’s ‘fight’ behaviors are driven by anxiety, the parent’s forceful response is likely to increase the child’s anxiety.

How do you tell the difference between an angry outburst and an anxious outburst? Given that anger is a normal human reaction to perceived injustice or being thwarted, and anxiety is a normal human reaction to perceived threat or danger, you may get an insight into the child’s behavior by checking out the event that set off the outburst. Take the example of an 8-year old girl whose 10-year old brother won’t let her have a turn on the computer. She complains, “George won’t let me on the computer!”, and it turns out that she has hit George. She may be angry because she wants to play a game and she thinks it’s unfair or feels blocked in her desire to play, or she may be anxious because she cannot finish her homework project on the computer and worries about the consequences of not finishing. In both cases, a parent will ensure that the child has fair access to the computer, but the quality of the parent’s response is likely to be different in each case. In the case of the game-time on the computer, the parent may insist that the children themselves work out a time-sharing system, and in the case of the unfinished project, the parent may intervene to insist that the computer be preferentially available for homework. However, in both cases, there may be some consequence for hitting George, as a zero-tolerance attitude to aggression is important.


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