How to tell if they are anxious or just disobedient
Do you have an anxious child and struggle to know when to discipline their behaviour? Are they misbehaving or are they anxious? It can be very difficult to tell the difference, but it’s an important difference to make. Anxious behaviours don’t deserve punishment and this can make it really tricky for parents when it comes to telling the difference. Getting into trouble can be what anxious children want, because it can mean they avoid an anxiety-producing situation.
Here are some principles to help you tell the difference
Physical and Verbal Aggression are Not Acceptable: Regardless of how they are feeling, physical and verbal aggression are not acceptable. These behaviours are not acceptable for anyone, even if they are experiencing big emotions whether that be fear, anger or sadness. Permitting your child to behave this way will be unhelpful for them in the long-run. They need to learn to manage their emotions appropriately.
Check for Avoidance A key feature of anxiety is avoidance, and if a child is afraid they may be behaving a certain way to avoid a task. On the outside this might look like misbehaviour. For example, you might ask your child to get changed into their pyjamas and they refuse. Stepping back from the situation and taking some time to consider what is going on can help you discern if this is anxiety or misbehaviour. In this case, you may know that your child is afraid of the dark and at the moment, their bedroom light is off. This would be anxiety talking, rather than naughtiness. However, if your child is instead glued to the iPad playing a game and there are no signs of things that would cause your child to be afraid, it’s likely that this is a case of disobedience.
Knowing how to parent a child that is anxious can be really difficult. These are just a few principles that can guide you in parenting an anxious child. Childhood anxiety can be very limiting not just for a child, but their family as well. Fortunately, anxiety is well-researched and there are effective evidence-based interventions available. If you would like more support and guidance, seeking professional help from a Psychologist can be greatly beneficial.
Sophie Antognelli (M Psych (Clinical), B Psych (Hons – First Class) is passionate about working alongside individuals and families to live more full lives, overcoming difficulties they may face. Sophie’s interests are in child and adolescent mental health are emotion regulation issues and anxiety. Sophie is interested in working with her adult clients to regain quality of life through early psychosis intervention, the management of symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as the broader clinical issues of perfectionism, adjustment to life stressors and low self-esteem. She developed these interests across her work in both inpatient and outpatient hospital settings. Alongside her clinical work, Sophie is also involved in a number of research projects exploring new approaches to anxiety disorders – with specific interests in investigating potential new avenues for addressing unhelpful thought patterns in health anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and hoarding disorder.