Help! My 3-year-old frequently experiences tantrums and meltdowns when we’re out with friends and family and will also act
out at home. What should I be doing? I’m really struggling…!
Anxiety can be a masterful imposter. In children, it can sway away from the more typical avoidant, clingy behaviour and show itself as tantrums, meltdowns and aggression. As if anxiety wasn’t hard enough to deal with!
When children are under the influence of an anxious brain, their behaviour has nothing to do with wanting to push against the limits. They are often great children who don’t want to be doing the wrong thing, but they are being driven by a brain in high alert.
If we could see what was happening in their heads when anxiety takes hold like this, their behaviour would make sense. We would want to scoop them up and take them away from the chaos of it all. Of course, that doesn’t mean that they should be getting a free pass on their unruly behaviour. Their angry behaviour makes sense, and it’s important to let them know this, but there will always be better choices they are capable of making.
Once children have a more solid understanding of why they do what they do, they will be well on their way to finding a better response.
Parents, grandparents, teachers – anyone who is able to understand and respond to their behaviour as something driven by anxiety, rather than ‘naughty’ behaviour, will be helping them to find healthier, stronger, more effective ways to respond to the world. All children have it in them to do this, but anxiety can have a sly way of stealing the attention from their strengths.
Anxiety happens when a part of the brain, the amygdala, senses trouble. When it senses threat, real or imagined, it surges the body with hormones (including cortisol, the stress hormone) and adrenaline to make the body strong, fast and powerful. This is the fight or flight response, and it has been keeping us alive for thousands of years.
An anxious brain is a strong, healthy brain that is a little overprotective. It is more likely to sense threat and hit the panic button ‘just in case’. When this happens often, it can create ‘anxiety about the anxiety’. One of the awful things about anxiety is the way it launches without warning, and often without need, sending an unsuspecting body unnecessarily into fight or flight.
For children with anxiety, any situation that is new, unfamiliar, difficult or stressful counts as a potential threat. The fight or flight response happens automatically and instantaneously, sending neurochemicals surging through their bodies, priming them for fight or flight. Every physical symptom that comes with anxiety – racy heart, sick tummy, clammy skin, vomiting, shaky arms or legs – is because of the surging of these neurochemicals. The natural end to the fight or flight response is intense physical activity. If the threat was real, they’d be fighting for their lives or running for it. When there is no need to fight or flee, there is nothing to burn up the neurochemicals and they build up, causing the physical symptoms of anxiety.
Anxiety is often associated with avoidance or clinginess, but it doesn’t necessarily present itself in this way. The physiological driver is the same – a brain under threat – but instead off light, it initiates fight. It doesn’t matter that there’s nothing at all to worry about. When the brain thinks there’s trouble, it acts as though it’s true.
Think of this like a smoke alarm. A smoke alarm can’t tell the difference between a real fire and burnt toast, and it doesn’t care. All it wants to do is keep you safe. It does this by making enough noise to get a response. Better safe than sorry. The brain works the same way. An anxious brain is a very protective brain, and it will be quicker to hit the alarm, even when there is no need. This could happen in response to unfamiliar situations or people, playground scuffles, criticism, disappointment, threat of embarrassment or failure – anything that could potentially trigger the feeling that something bad may be about to happen.
Children can do amazing things with the right information, and it’s important not to underestimate their potential for understanding. When it is something that is personally relevant, their capacity for understanding is immense. Here’s what they need to know, but it doesn’t need to happen all at once. Giving them the information over lots of small, incidental chats will be just as powerful.
‘Those times you get really angry are probably confusing for you. I know you don’t want to do the wrong thing and I think it will help if I explain what happens when you get angry like that. First of all, you need to know that everyone gets angry for all sorts of different reasons. Your reason is a really good one – it’s because your brain is working hard to protect you.’
‘Strong breathing calls up the front part of your brain, called the prefrontal cortex, which is a part of your brain that is able to calm things down and think things through. When your amygdala thinks there’s danger, it gets bossy and tells this part of the brain that it’s not needed. This is why it’s so important for you to learn how to be the boss of your brain.When you’re in charge, you can get the front part of your brain involved in deciding whether or not to fight or flee.’
Breathing techniques, you and your child can do together...
- Pretend you are holding a mug of hot chocolate. Breathe in for three seconds through your nose, as though you are smelling the delicious rich chocolatey smell. Then pretend to blow it cool, by breathing out through your mouth for three seconds. Keep doing these four or five times, then you’ll start to feel yourself relax.
- Put a soft toy on your belly. Breathe in for three, hold it for a second and then breathe out for three. If the toy is moving, you’re breathing deep into your belly – just like strong breathing is meant to be.
The research on the effectiveness of mindfulness could fill its own library. Mindfulness has been proven over and over to have enormous capacity to build a strong body, mind and spirit. Building the brain against anxiety is one of its wonders.
Anxiety happens when the brain spends too much time in the future. This is where it grabs on to the ‘what ifs. Mindfulness strengthens it to stay in the present. It’s simple, and kids take hold of the concept beautifully. They are mindful little beings anyway, but the more they can strengthen this skill, the stronger they will be. It’s a wonderful skill to have, anxious or not.
Mindfulness is about stepping back and seeing thoughts and feelings come and go, without judgement, but with a relaxed mind. It has been shown to strengthen the connection between the instinctive, emotional back of the brain (the heartland of the fight or flight response) and the pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain that soothes it back to calm).
Big emotions live in the right side of the brain. The words that make sense of those emotions live in the left. Sometimes, there is a disconnect between the two. It can happen in all of us. When there is a disconnect, there are big feelings, but they feel overwhelming and they don’t make sense.
If your child seems quick to anger, be open to the possibility that anxiety might be the culprit. The most powerful way to turn any type of anxiety around is to explain to children the driving force behind their behaviour. This will help to empower them and put the focus on their strengths in managing their behaviour and help lift them to full flight.
Peace and Love to you all,