Understanding Childhood Destructive Behaviour

An 8-year-old boy called Dillon has a meltdown in school. He’s become angry about something another boy in his class had said to him, he pushes the other boy, and a fight starts. When the teacher steps in to break it up, Dillon really has a meltdown and starts throwing furniture and books around the classroom and then runs out of the room and down the corridor. He is finally stopped, and taken to the Headmaster’s office, where the school secretary and head, try to calm him down. Instead, he kicks them in a manic effort to escape.

Dillon looks like a boy with serious anger issues. This is a regular occurrence. The school insists that his parents pick him up and take him home and the Headmaster excludes him from school for a few days.

However, what is the real problem?  It turned out that Dillon was suffering with severe social anxiety. He was embarrassed about many things and didn’t have the social skills, or the tools, to deal with it.  

A young boy with face paint makes and angry face.

Dillon’s story depicts something that both teachers and parents, may not realize—that disruptive behaviour is often the result of severe anxiety. A child who appears to be oppositional or aggressive may be reacting to anxiety, an anxiety that he may, depending on his age and maturity, would not be able to explain properly, or not even be fully aware of his feelings.

In younger children, from 3- 7 or 8 years old (sometimes even older) these “tantrums” or “meltdowns” are quite often due to an underlying anxiety.

Anxiety presents in a  variety of ways  because it is based on a physical response to a threat, a response that maximizes the body’s ability to either face danger or escape danger (fight or flight)  So while some children present with  anxiety by staying away from situations or things that trigger fears, others actually react with anger, and a desperate  need to break out of a situation that makes them feel uncomfortable and threatened. 

The more common symptoms of anxiety in a child are things like bedwetting, stool holding or not sleeping in his own room. These are recognisable signs and symptoms of anxiety, but to most parents, anger and uncontrollable, disruptive behaviour is not.

Sometimes, a child will say they are hearing voices or have a voice in their head telling them to do naughty things, and the parents naturally become extremely worried, but these are not “usually” the type of voices associated with something like schizophrenia or multi personality disorder, but simply a way of the child expressing his anxious feelings.

Undiagnosed anxiety at school can quite often bring on very bad behaviour, almost unintentionally, and it’s important that teachers and teaching assistants are aware of this. The child may push that teacher away, the very person who wants to help him. Then because the child is disrupting the rest of the class he is sent to the Headmaster’s office for the rest of the day.

Naturally, some children are diagnosed with ADHD or ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) but it doesn’t mean to say they have no anxiety!

How to Recognise Anxiety

It could be that a disruptive child DOES have ADHD/CD/ODD or one of the many disorders associated with bad behaviour. However, they could also be struggling with anxiety, which if treated, may not result in that behaviour. Hypnotherapy (paediatric) and CBT both help the anxious child overcome their worries, tensions and stresses. Many of these disorders overlap so it’s extremely important that a correct diagnosis is made.

A child with severe anxiety who’s struggling in school might also have some learning issues, but she might need to be treated for the anxiety before she can really be evaluated for those. Perhaps a child who has OCD, who is spending several hours a day on her rituals, should be treated for the anxiety first before her learning and concentration problems are looked at.

Here are some things you can do at home to help your child manage their anxiety:

  • Pay close attention to your child’s feelings, how are they reacting to normal requests?
  • Keep calm yourself, when your child becomes anxious about a situation or event.
  • Praise any tiny accomplishments.
  • Don’t punish – teach!
  • Avoid changing plans – anxious children like routine

Many of the children that I treat in my two clinics (London and Berkshire)

Are suffering from some form of anxiety. Quite often they present with “bad behaviour – temper tantrums – aggressive behaviour – being excluded from school – lack of concentration and various other behavioural and destructive behaviours. There may be various reasons for their behaviour, but the first thing I look at is “anxiety”. If I feel there is another reason (ADHD/CD/ODD) or learning difficulties, I will advise the parents accordingly.

If YOU are worried about YOUR child’s behaviour – why not contact me:

Elaine Hodgins (MAHA, Reg Hyp Dip NLP RN.)

Focus Hypnotherapy Specialist in Children’s Anxiety and Behavioural Disorders

Thanks to Patrick Fore on Unsplash for the photo

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