Anxiety Looks Like Anger

[Disclaimer: This post is targeted towards parents, as I have been seeing a lot of parents recently ask about what to do about their child’s behaviors (trying to figure out what is best for them, and asking autistic people). Similar versions of this can happen as autistic adults, especially when people misinterpret us as complaining or being “defensive.”]
Many parents have a hard time understanding that a misbehaving child is a distressed child.

A misbehaving child is a distressed child.

What anxiety can look like to a parent in their autistic child:

  1. Complaining about a task
  2. Rolling eyes
  3. “Being rude”
  4. Stomping feet, hitting objects, yelling and screaming
  5. Asking a lot of “annoying” questions – “being annoying on purpose,” which can make an exhausted parent annoyed or angry.

This is what the child is actually feeling (they are not trying to intentionally annoy you or complain or be rude):

  1. Frustrated – the task does not make sense, the child is stressed, it is loud/too many people/too tired. The child can’t do it right now. They don’t know why they are being told to because they literally cannot do it right now. Their brain isn’t working.
  2. Anxious, scared –
    • The child knows their anxiety is going to skyrocket when doing something, like going to the grocery store.
    • The child is anxious that they cannot control their environment, and is anxious that they have to do something RIGHT NOW and is having a problem switching tasks.
    • The child doesn’t know why they have to do something – it doesn’t make any sense to them and they can think of other solutions that require less anxiety by the child, but knows that if they suggest an alternative, they will be seen as “complaining” and “misbehaving.”
    • The things the child have been told are inconsistent – they remember being told they didn’t have to go to X thing, but it changed, and the parent pretends like the change didn’t happen, or never mentions the change at all, but expects the child to be ready to go.
  3. Confused, Frustrated – the child knows they can’t do the task, and is trying to make the task easier or trying to explain why they cannot do something – but they sound stressed so the parent interprets this as “rude” and “defensive.”
  4. Very Frustrated, near meltdown –
    • Usually occurs when the child knows that talking or asking questions didn’t help before, or they were already tried and it escalated the situation with the parent, as the parent is tired and wasn’t able to stay calm this time. The parent sounds annoyed.
    • The child is already stressed currently from the way the task was phrased (sometimes as a command rather than a question), as they don’t feel like they have any autonomy or control in the matter.
    • The child is already stressed from previous events in the day/week (school for example), and the only way they can get their frustration out is by stomping because they can no longer think or respond verbally and their stress bucket is finally too full.
  5. Confused, Anxious –
    • The child is trying to understand why this event that causes them anxiety and stress is important, as it does not seem logical and they don’t want to deal with the autistic burnout that will happen afterwards.
    • The child is trying to prepare for what the environment will be like or what the task will entail – often visualizing the task makes it easier for us to switch to that task.
    • The child wants to make sure that they will be safe during the task/event and that everything is accounted for – that their parents won’t forget important things for the event.
    • The child knows that it will be much more stressful for them than for their parents, and their parents may not understand their sensory sensitivities, so knowing what will be happening is important for the child to prevent meltdowns/shutdowns. They want to make sure they are getting an accurate account of the sensory situation – how many people will be there, what the building is made of, etc, but know that your parent may not even think of that. You’re not sure if their answers will be right because oftentimes they are inaccurate (since their brain experiences things differently).

Strategies for Parents

For all situations except #4 (which is essentially meltdown territory that requires support and heading the child to a quiet safe place they can calm down in):

  • it is important to take your child’s anxiety seriously. Don’t say generalized things such as “Everything will be fine” – as in many cases it is not, since we have different sensory experiences than non-autistic people, and many non-autistic people can’t be aware of many sounds/lights/smells that are experienced by autistic people.
  • It is important to validate your child’s feelings. “That does sound very frustrating.”
  • If they need to be reassured about information of the event, tell them what will happen step by step, answer all of their questions (such as in #5), even if it can seem exhausting or repetitive to you. If you don’t know something, don’t pretend you do know or use vague statements – simply tell them “we’ll work that out together” and create a backup plan to let your child know that they will be safe.
  • If they are “complaining” about a task, ask them what would help. Do they need downtime alone before they go out to the grocery store, and downtime when they get back? Do they need one less chore that day to have enough energy to go to the event, or do a larger more important task?
  • Make a compromise – pretend that you are talking to an adult who has just as much autonomy as you. Try to listen to what they are saying – do they say the event is “unpleasant?” Is there a sign of pain or discomfort or anxiety in anything they mention?
  • Find the cause or reason they are upset (it may have to be another time, when they are less stressed and upset) – is it due to the unexpected schedule, or the lack of downtime? Is it because home and school environments have been different/busier? This requires time and various communication methods (emails/typing/writing may be easier for some children to talk about their feelings, rather than verbally – it gives them more time to process and answer your questions).

Punishments Don’t Work

Punishments don’t work. That only feeds the anxiety and stress in your child as they are already anxious, which is why they are behaving the way they are. Giving your child choice, even “illusive” choice, is better than making demands. For example, you can tell your child what will happen if they do not do something – but don’t say they have to do it. Telling your child that they have to do something makes them feel like it is a life and death situation – and most of the time, it isn’t! It is not the end of the world if a child doesn’t turn in their homework, or they are late to school because they didn’t put their shoes on. The important thing for you to teach them is emotional regulation and to help them learn that their feelings are valid and real – which well then help them learn to use strategies to calm those emotions. If they do not know what they are feeling (which is very common, as alexithymia is common in autistic people), they will not know they are upset – and this can lead to #4, meltdowns (and shutdowns). As a parent, you can model emotions for them by telling them how you feel. Example: “I feel anxious as I was not able to make dinner for you on time, so I will try to take a few deep breaths and do an activity I enjoy to try to calm down.” Having your child know that it is okay to acknowledge anxiety will allow them to feel less shame about processing that emotion and admitting that to others (as a person who was undiagnosed, I rarely expressed to anyone that I was anxious – in fact my parents were never even aware I was anxious in my childhood. I assumed I wasn’t anxious – mostly because I always was).  Acknowledging anxiety often helps one process and deal with the anxiety itself.

Emotional Regulation

Sometimes, meditation helps people regulate their emotions. Personally this has not been the case for me (and can cause frustration from listening to everything around me). Distraction has often been my best regulation technique – reading something I am interested in, or watching a tv show which lets me pay attention to that, rather than emotions or sensory stimuli. Breathing exercises when upset has helped, mostly with hyperventilation, but for the most part, (if not in a shutdown or meltdown, but pre-shutdown and pre-meltdown), simply having someone ask me about something I’m interested in and letting me talk and ignoring the current emotional situation altogether has helped me the most to calm down. I think of a shutdown as waiting for my brain to calm down, because that is simply all you can do once you are in a shutdown. This thinking has helped me wait it out more calmly, rather than become more anxious and spiral into negative thought cycles, as I am able to separate my logical thinking self from my currently anxious/overwhelmed/petrified brain.

Feel free to comment if you have any other ways you regulate your own emotions, or other ways to deal with preparing for events that make you anxious.

A flow chart titled The Demand to Anxiety Cycle. It's showing the circular cycle of a parent giving a demand to an autistic child, and the child becoming anxious and being perceived as complaining/rude, rather than anxious. This makes the parent push back further saying "You're going because I said so," and leads the child to have a meltdown or shutdown, crying/frustration.

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