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How Anxious Boys Sometimes Grow Into Angry Ones and What To Do About It
Many of us come into the world and see it as an exciting, interesting place. Others see it as frightening, sometimes overwhelming. If the world is infinitely interesting one discovers ways to embrace complexity and to enjoy the constant exposure to opportunity. Those who encounter it as a threat may see the world as a set of situations that need to be controlled. We can imagine that whichever one becomes is a complex process.
It depends on heredity, where one grew up and with whom one developed. We all arrive with a different set of characteristics and vulnerabilities. Small children who later become anxious children are those who closely observe the world around them and take it in mostly by using their senses and less by using thoughts. They literally feel the world around them and if that world is too loud, too dangerous, too threatening they react to protect themselves. But they are too little to do very much so they endure.
Others observe but do so with more selective sensation and a developing ability to balance with reason and therefore become able to erect boundaries around experiences that might overwhelm them. Anxious kids experience sensation mixing to the point of overload. They seek ways to control input as they evolve brain capacity.
In part this is how temperament develops. Kids who sense too much discover that they cannot control the input but they can at least try to control those around them. That is, they can't stop their body from sensing the tags on their underwear but they can scream at mom for choosing that particular pair of underwear.
Other kids seek comfort from another person as a way of quieting sensation. They reach out for help and in so doing develop trust in other people and establish relationship. The angry anxious kids don't reach out.
They try to manage by themselves. They discover that becoming aggressive immediately affords them a way to focus energy in a way that creates the illusion of control. They believe they can make a situation come under their control and this feeling of power takes away fear, anxiety and frustration. These characteristics develop for all kinds of reasons but we probably need to assume that there is some heredity involved.
That's called a predisposition. It might also be that nobody was there to whom they could turn or that those there believed it was better for the child to learn to take care of things alone. Some of us just come with a greater potential to develop certain traits given exposure to certain circumstances.
Mix in any variety of circumstances at pivotal points in development and the result might be a complicated, temperamental, angry, anxious child. A lot of these are boys. At least in times past the girls were better about seeking out nurturance, or maybe it was that parents were better about offering nurturance to the girls. The problem is that the boy does something to get noticed and that something isn't usually recognized as a sign of his being anxious. It is often something that attracts the wrong kind of attention.
That might be why kids like that so often shout about how unfair the adult or the world is to them. They are focused on the first thing they experienced as a threat to their well being. They are not focused on what they did in response.
The world sees the last thing that happened. The world sees that child yelling or hitting or throwing and isn't so concerned about why it happened. But the boy is and when he perceives a world unwilling to listen he gets angrier.
The behavior often begins with a sense of being trapped or overwhelmed and unable to manage. Experience showed him that shifting to aggression made him feel more in control. That's when thought kicked in and the thought is that getting aggressive works. It makes no sense to him that everybody is so focused on what just happened.
He wants to make them understand how it all started and he's unlikely to stop until he does make them understand. Consequences as a remedy for these kids need to start with at least an understanding of who that child is and how he encounters the world. If he is an anxious boy who manages his anxiety by becoming angry then the consequence needs to include some way to let the boy know that he is understood. Otherwise he will be unable or unwilling to accept any limits or to understand that his actions were an inappropriate response.
The stakes are high. Angry anxious boys grow into angry anxious men. Then we no longer have the luxury of trying to reshape his behavior with empathy and understanding.
Ted Lobby is a clinical social worker in private practice in Edina, MN. He works with all ages. He is the author of two books, one to help small children with bad dreams and the other to help adolescents become self regulating. http://www.anxiouskids.com
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