My daughter (10) is having anxiety ‘meltdowns’
She ends up screaming, shouting and lashing out at her brother
Tamtrums at home: most people would not know she does this as everyone thinks she is well behaved
Q. My daughter is 10 years old and she is a charming kind girl who gets on well with people.
The trouble is that she is a real worrier and regularly has anxiety meltdowns at home. A lot of them are triggered by worries in school – she will ruminate that she has got something wrong in a test or that her homework is not good enough. Her teacher says she is an excellent student, so she doesn’t need to worry about this.
Nothing I can say or do seems to reassure her and she can work herself up into a state where she is screaming and shouting. At that point she can become really mean in what she says and takes it out on her little brother.
I then become exasperated with her. Most people would not know she does this as everyone thinks she is well behaved. Her teacher was amazed when I told her about the meltdowns at home.
Do you have any advice about how to help her? These tantrums seem to be happening much more often. I can see by her face when she comes in from school if there is something up and that we are in for a difficult evening.
A. As a parent it is common experience to have a child who is well behaved in school, but who displays more challenging behaviour in the home. Some children can be charming and social outside the home, yet in the home they can display a more volatile or demanding side.
Just as you experience, people outside the home can be amazed that such children have the meltdowns you described because they experience a different child in different context. The expression, “street angel, house devil” is often used to describe this experience.
In thinking how to respond, the first thing I would say to you is to be thankful that your daughter is able to hold it together and to behave well outside the home. Certainly it would be harder problem to fix if she was acting up at school as well as in the home because this would lead her into more serious trouble.
In addition, it is good that she is able to let her guard down and reveal how she feels with you, though of course you want to teach her how to do this in a less harmful way. It could be worse if she bottled up or internalised her feelings in a way that caused her more long term problems.
Understand the stress your daughter is under
At 10 years of age, lots of children can feel stress and pressure. As a pre-teen your daughter is likely to be going through puberty and experiencing the emotional ups and downs this brings. At her age, academic pressure in school is usually mounting as well as social pressures to fit in and succeed. Lots of children who have a tendency to worry can find all this particularly hard and this can lead to increased anxiety, which can escalate into meltdowns and tantrums.
It is likely that your daughter finds certain events stressful or upsetting through the day but holds all her upset and emotion in until she comes home. Just as with adults, many children take out their stress at home with family, though of course this is not the best strategy.
Help your daughter express herself
Acknowledge with your daughter that you understand that she might be stressed coming in from school but agree with her that she has to find better ways of expressing this so that you she does not upset other people.
Coach your daughter in the best ways to manage her feelings such as naming them in “I messages”, such as “ I felt upset in school today”, rather than taking them out angrily on others. There are lots of nice-feeling worksheets and booklets you can get online.
If possible arrange a “debriefing” or “listening time” when your daughter comes in from school, when she can be encouraged to say what is on her mind and you can be there to listen.
Find ways of soothing your daughter
What helps your daughter relax and settle down when she is wound up about something? Different things work for different children. For example, for some children it can be useful to go for a walk with them to send them outside to jump on the trampoline to break a negative mood. For others it might work to let them have a good cry on your shoulder and/or to hold or cuddle them.
Other children need to take a break by doing a relaxing activity such as playing the piano by themselves or simply lying down for a minute on the couch listening to music. Identify different options you can use with your daughter. As she is 10, you can involve her in discussing strategies – help her brainstorm and list ways she can take a break when she is upset about something.
Problem solve with your daughter
Try to get your daughter express the specifics of the stresses she is dealing with. In my experience, it often works best to set aside a “worry or problem solving” time each day when you will be available to talk through whatever challenges she is dealing with and to her her solve them.
For example, if she is worried about homework or fitting in with school, you would encourage her to talk this through, to think up solutions and to make a plan as to how she might respond the next day.
Be prepared to use some discipline
It is okay to insist that your daughter communicates respectfully and to hold her to account for this. For example, when she starts getting wound up and speaking negatively you might warn her “You need to calm down now and be polite or you will lose some TV time”.
Alternatively, you might negotiate a daily reward (eg, some extra pocket money) with her for a week if she makes an effort to communicate positively about her stresses each afternoon and avoids throwing her tantrum.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He will be delivering talks on Positive Self-Esteem in Dublin on November 30th. See solutiontalk.ie for details