When Your Anxious Child Looks Like an Angry Child

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell

Are you dealing with a child who often seems to be angry?

Does your angry child test your patience and is it hard to stay calm?

Could there be an anxious child underneath?

Let’s take a closer look

The Link Between Anger and Anxiety

Our brains have evolved over many thousands of years.

In the last couple of hundred years though, human society has moved so fast, and the brain has not kept up.

Our Primitive Brain

The brain evolved to deal with immediate dangers, like a wild animal chasing us, or another human trying to steal our cave.

It’s designed for survival.

When that wild animal or threatening human comes along, the brain instantly triggers a response that gets the body ready for action, to fight or runaway.

If fighting or running away isn’t really an option, the body might freeze in the hope that the predator might think we are dead, or not notice us. It’s called fight, flight or freeze.

Once the danger is passed, the brain restores normal functions in the body and breathing, heart rate and so on can slow down again.

The body recovers really quickly and life goes on, until the next danger comes along.

The Problem With Modern Life

angry child: diagram of their mind (example)
hidden stress leading to anger

The problem is, modern life doesn’t work like that. There are fewer physical dangers of course, for most of us.

But there are so many more things that put pressure on our nervous systems, that the brain interprets as threatening, particularly when lots of these things are happening at once.

When someone finds something threatening, fight or flight is the usual response, and you are seeing the “fight” in your child. Fight might mean an angry verbal outburst, hurting someone or wrecking the house.

You may be thinking, but what has my child got to feel threatened about?

Well, here are some examples of things that a child’s brain might find threatening, depending on previous experiences:

  • Speaking out loud in class.
  • Having a different teacher because the regular teacher is off sick.
  • Moving to secondary school.
  • A new friend wanting to join their small friendship circle.
  • Getting an open-ended piece of homework.
  • Going on holiday.
  • Tasting a new food.
  • Trying to “survive” whilst playing a survival computer game.
  • Being away from their mum or dad overnight.

The list is endless…

If you’re not sure about your child’s stressors, read this article.

The New Brain

Not only are there multiple sources of stress in modern life, but in many ways our sophisticated brain works against us to make us more stressed. The front part of the brain is the newest.

The prefrontal cortex has evolved to give us incredible thinking skills like planning ahead and organising our lives.

But planning ahead also causes us to worry about the future.

This ability to think in such an advanced way also causes us to mull over things that have happened in the past and worry about those. These thoughts can be interpreted by the brain as potential threats. This can easily trigger the stress (fight, flight or freeze) response.

anger and the prefrontal cortex of the brain

Where Does Anxiety Fit In?

So far I have talked about the link between stress and anger.

Anxiety concerns the anticipation of what might or might not happen. It might be triggered by a thought, such as: What if I get told off in maths?

The thought doesn’t have to be real or something that will definitely come true, even the thought of something which is highly unlikely to happen can cause anxiety.

This is a big problem, especially for children.

Children often have vivid imaginations and often lack the life experience to know what is likely to happen and what isn’t. At Everlief, I once supported a child who was scared to go camping in the UK as she thought a tsunami might sweep her tent away.

Anxious thoughts and worries contribute to stress just as much as real life events.

In summary, there is often a close link between anxiety and anger. Sometimes children seem very angry and do not seem anxious at all, but when you look under the surface, you see all the little stressors that have built up.


What You Can Do If You Have An Angry/Anxious Child

There is plenty you can do to help an angry child stress and anxiety (therefore reducing their anger).

Successful strategies focus on understanding and prevention, and you can find some ideas in my recent article on how to prevent meltdowns.

If you want to deepen your understanding about anxiety so you feel clear on exactly which steps will help for your child, consider our mini-course, Knowledge is Power!

Knowledge is Power: Understanding Anxiety in Children course

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Free Printable Anger Thermometer & Parent Guide

Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.

In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

UK parents, looking for expert parenting advice?

Dr. Lucy Russell’s Everlief Parent Club offers a clear path towards a calmer, happier family life. This monthly membership includes exclusive workshops, direct support from child psychologists, and access to our private Facebook community.

Together, we can move towards a calm, happy family life and boost your child’s wellbeing. Become a member today!