Most people experience heightened levels of anxiety from changes in routine, to fear of illness, or even deeper concerns over security and their basic needs not being met. Anxiety can also impact an individual’s daily level of function and behavior. Children are particularly vulnerable to anxiety as they learn to cope with stress.
“If you’ve noticed a significant change in your child’s behavior, it isn’t something that should be ignored,” says Christy Ainsworth, LCSW, Clinical Director for Canopy Children’s Solutions’ CARES Center. “When children and teens don’t know how to verbalize what they are feeling, it often comes out in their actions or behavior—which isn’t always pleasant. The important thing to remember is that this behavior is a reaction to something that is happening in their lives.”
Open parent–child communication is important to having mentally healthy and happy children. They need to have a safe place to talk about what is bothering them. If something is happening within the family, remember that these things often have a way of impacting everyone in the household. Understanding the child’s behavior is the first big step in curbing bad behaviors and creating and reinforcing positive ones.
“One key thing to remember is that you cannot discipline these behaviors out of a child when it is a response to trauma. For parents, it’s important to do a self-evaluation when you begin noticing abrupt changes in behavior,” says Ainsworth. “Is there a significant change happening in your family’s lives such a divorce, a death or job loss? Are they struggling with changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic? Is your family moving houses or schools that may change their friend group? Without judgement, talk to your child while actively listening to try to gain a better understanding of how they are feeling and what positive changes you can make together.”
If there are difficult challenges happening in the home, remember it is OK to ask for outside help. Seeking assistance from a licensed therapist or working with community outreach resources to meet critical needs can often help a child feel more secure. It is also important to recognize that because an event is not traumatic for one person, doesn’t mean it can’t cause significant stress and anxiety in another.
Difficult behavior isn’t just noticed at home. Teachers spend nearly as much time with their students as a child spends at home. Teachers can also notice trauma-response behaviors in their students. Signs can include:
- Sudden drop in grades
- Acting out for attention
- Need for constant direction
- Being off-task or an inability to concentrate
- Being regularly hungry or tired
- Complaints of headaches or stomachaches that persist over a prolonged period of time
“Many times when a child isn’t putting forth their best at school, it often results in disciplinary action, which can often exacerbate the negative behaviors,” says Ainsworth. “Sometimes there are things happening at home. School becomes that ‘safe place’ where children fall apart. Sometimes there is an underlying health condition that isn’t being addressed such as ADHD, autism, anxiety or depression that is impacting their performance at school. I always encourage teachers to talk to the child and the parents to again try to understand the ‘why’ behind what is happening.”
When a child exhibit challenging behavior, particularly if it is through defiance or being disrespectful, it can be easy to take their actions personally. Ainsworth reminds teachers that their actions are not about YOU. Keeping that in perspective and addressing the root of the behavior can help children find better ways to cope with their emotions rather than acting aggressively, disrespectful or defiant. If a child’s behavior is causing severe disruptions in class, reach out to the school counselor, behavior specialist or other resource faculty who can help develop methods for altering the child’s disruptive behavior.
“It can be easy to label a child as ‘bad’ and just move on,” says Ainsworth, “but taking time to invest in that child, showing them love and support through good and bad and believing in them and their success can help to create long-lasting, positive change.”
This article was featured in the November issue of Parents and Kids Magazine. Contributed by Laura Walker, staff writer for Canopy Children’s Solutions (Canopy). Canopy offers an array of behavioral health, educational and social service solutions to children and families throughout Mississippi. For more information about solutions offered through Canopy, please visit mycanopy.org or call 800-388-6247.