Sometimes kids act out. That’s a fact for anyone who has, knows, or has interacted with a child. However, there are some kids who just can’t seem to get a grip. These kids get easily upset, and their frustrations often escalate into physical aggression. These kids are often labelled defiant or angry.

But is that really how they’re feeling?

An article published by the Child Mind Insititute presents another side of the story. They tell the story of a young boy named James. He has an altercation with a classmate that escalates and results in a 911 call and a lifetime ban from the school cafeteria. But when mental health professionals evaluated James, they discovered that he wasn’t angry; he was anxious. Dr. Jerry Bubrick, director of the Anxiety & Mood Disorders Centre at the Child Mind Institute says  “He can’t tolerate any—even constructive—criticism. He just will shut down altogether. James is terrified of being embarrassed, so when a boy says something that makes him uncomfortable, he has no skills to deal with it, and he freaks out. Flight or fight.”

[They] can’t tolerate any  —  even constructive  —  criticism.

One of the most difficult things about diagnosing anxiety in (especially) younger kids is that their symptoms can be easily missed or mislabelled as “bad behaviour”. Anxiety presents itself in a number of surprising ways, partially because it is a psychological response to what the brain perceives as a threat. Some children may respond to this “threat” by shrinking in fear, others may exhibit an intense need to escape the situation. The latter of these behaviours is most often misread as anger.

If a child displays common symptoms of anxiety such as difficulty sleeping alone, avoidance of certain activities, or unwillingness to separate from their parents, it is a much easier diagnosis. Children who struggle primarily with temper tantrums, school disruptions, or inexplicable outbursts are much easier to miss. However, it is not uncommon for these kids to end up in the ER and come out with a diagnosis of a severe anxiety disorder.

If you suspect your child is suffering from anxiety, it’s a good idea to get them properly assessed. In the meantime, the Child Mind Insititute offers some advice for leading with an anxious child:

  • Don’t make the goal anxiety elimination, instead strive for anxiety management
  • Express positive – but realistic – expectations
  • Don’t reinforce your child’s fears
  • Think things through with your child
  • Model healthy strategies of anxiety management

It would be far easier to see a child acting out, and chalk it up to bad behaviour. Instead, we should take the time to dig a little deeper and discover what is actually going on. Our children are worth it.