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Illustration of boy acting out due to anxiety
Illustration courtesy Lauren Rebbeck

How can I explain my child’s anxiety-related behaviors?

Licensed clinical psychologist Joey Tadie shares tips for parents.

The Problem:

My child suffers from anxiety. When he is anxious, it looks like he is misbehaving. How do I explain to others that my child is not a bad child

The Expert:

Joey Tadie, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist, The Catalyst Center

The Solution:

A child with anxiety can look distracted, hyperactive, defiant, or out-of-control. These behaviors can be confusing and misunderstood by people who don’t associate them with anxiety. Fortunately, there are some helpful ways of explaining to others what’s happening.

Use an analogy. Containing anxiety is kind of like a dam holding back a lot of water. If the water builds up too much behind the dam, either the water will spill over the top, or the dam will burst, leading to a flood. Anxiety operates much the same way because it’s tension that builds inside and desperately needs expression. Use this example to help others understand.

Highlight that your child is learning new skills. Children often don’t have the resources, language, experience, or development to explain their feelings or know how to resolve the discomfort. Point out that your child is learning ways to manage strong feelings and urges. It’s a process that is practiced in all settings.

Use positive, empowering language. Don’t send a message that the child is “flawed” because he struggles with anxiety. State the reasons you’re proud of your child for overcoming feelings such as fear or insecurity. For example, say, “I think my son is really brave for doing things when he feels scared or unsure.”

Talk about your role in supporting your child’s growth. Point out your philosophy of being in a supportive and teaching role. Indicate that you intend to stand by your child as they figure out this challenge, and will do so with compassion rather than punishment.

Trying to hide the reasons for your child’s behavior is both confusing for the child and often burdensome for the parent. Talking openly and with an accepting tone allows this topic to be discussed without stigma. Your child will see the open, confident way you address this, which could help empower them to talk about it, too.

Keep in mind that even when you offer research-based explanations for your child’s behavior, some people will have a hard time understanding, or won’t believe what you say. Give yourself a break and reserve detailed explanations about your child’s behavior for people that are important in your son’s life. Look away from the grocery-store-head-shakers with confidence, knowing that you are doing the best for your child and don’t owe them any explanation at all.

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