Research shows that the more anxiety a child is experiencing, the less control they have over their emotional reaction. Children who have more anxiety do not have enough executive functioning power to regulate their behavior in-the-moment and right after. If you ever wondered how anxiety leads to aggression, oppositional behaviors, argumentativeness, freezing up, rigidity, inappropriate affect, etc., here is your answer.
This finding also explains why it does not help to tell someone that the situation they are anxious about is not all that bad. A person who is very anxious and whose amygdala generates a strong fear response is not able to take this information in because the signals from the executive functioning centers are not strong enough to allow for efficient information processing and adjustment of behavior.
A unique recent study at the Standford University School of Medicine reported the above findings. The study used MRI to explore responses of children who have anxiety to negative stimuli.
The study found that amygdala, which is the brain's center for the fear response, generated a stronger signal in more anxious children. Amygdala sent this fear signal to the area of the brain that is responsible for executive functioning, such as self-management and emotional regulation. It is called the dorsolateral prefrontal area. The signal that this area sent back to the amygdala was the same strength in more anxious children as in children with less anxiety. As a result, the children who had more anxiety responded in a less controlled way. More anxious children also could not use the information to help see the situation in a more positive light to adjust their response.
Those of us working in the field of special education need to take note. Many children on the autism spectrum, with ADHD, history of trauma, learning disabilities, communication challenges, sensory processing differences, and other conditions experience anxiety daily. It is not always diagnosed, but it affects a child even when it does not meet the criteria for a disorder.
If a child is having behavioral issues, we should always consider a possible role of anxiety. Keep in mind that we cannot always evaluate how intense the anxiety is because its cognitive and physical signs are often not observable. Individuals on the spectrum can also have non-traditional symptoms of anxiety that often get overlooked.
This research clearly shows that we cannot expect children with high anxiety to respond calmly and rationally when their anxiety hits. We cannot punish them for aggression, impulsivity, or other behavioral problems and expect that the punishment will help with future behaviors.
When someone is experiencing intense anxiety, the first order of things is to help them to calm down. Once the person is calm, there can be a conversation about what happened and what to do better this time. This conversation cannot happen while the person is experiencing anxiety because the person won't be able to process this information and use it to adjust perception and response in-the-moment.
Additionally, we need to modify the environment to remove triggers that lead to intense anxiety. We also need to teach highly anxious individuals to recognize their triggers and signs of anxiety. We need to teach them to communicate about it and their needs before the anxiety gets too high.
REFERENCE: Warren, S. L., Zhang, Y., Duberg, K., Mistry, P., Cai, W., Qin, S., … Menon, V. (2020). Anxiety and Stress Alter Decision-Making Dynamics and Causal Amygdala-Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex Circuits During Emotion Regulation in Children. Biological Psychiatry.