While recently browsing my Twitter feed, I came across an article in Hey SIGMUND (Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human) entitled Anxiety or Aggression? When Anxiety in Children Looks Like Anger, Tantrums, or Meltdowns. Coincidentally, at the time, I was coaching a highly gifted young man and his family, and this was one of their major concerns. The perspectives in this article helped me communicate more clearly with the parents and the child, and helped them develop strategies to combat the underlying anxiety. And so I thought I’d share them with you.
Gifted children are often (as the Polish psychiatrist, psychologist, and physician, Kazimierz Dabrowski asserted) overexcitable; they possess a hypersensitivity that can be both glorious and overwhelming to themselves and to others. One hallmark of this overexcitability in children can be anxiety. And, according to the article in Hey SIGMUND, “anxiety can be a masterful imposter.” While we often think of anxious children as clingy and perhaps avoidant, anxiety can also manifest itself in tantrums, meltdowns, and aggression. Now here’s where my perspective about anxiety was blown wide open: “When children are under the influence of an anxious brain, their behavior has nothing to do with wanting to push against the limits. They are often great kids who don’t want to do the wrong thing, but they are being driven by a brain in high alert.” In reframing the behavior as the response to an anxious brain, parents, grandparents and teachers can help these children to find stronger, healthier, and more productive ways to respond to the world.
Children need to understand that their brain (specifically the amygdala area) is powerfully designed to sense trouble, and to respond with hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline to make them strong, fast and powerful. In an anxious brain, that healthy brain can become a bit too overprotective/overactive, producing hormones “just in case” they’re needed, such as in situations that are new, unfamiliar or potentially stressful. If we couple these anxiety-producing situations with children who often expect perfection from themselves, we can understand how easily “swamped” they can become. Most children will report symptoms such as sick tummies, clammy skin, vomiting, racing heart, or shaking arms or legs when anxious, and while some children will become clingy or avoid these situations, others respond not with a “flight response,” but with “fight response,” which may include tantrums, meltdowns, or aggression. These behaviors are an automatic response from a brain that perceives threat, real or imagined (and gifted research confirms that gifted children may also possess overactive imaginations).
So...what do we do to help our children? This article presented many thoughtful suggestions. Here are some of the most powerful:
Past President, WATG