This is a collaborative post in partnership with BetterHelp.
As parents, many of us constantly worry about our children and whether we’re doing everything “right”. We question the ways our children act as they grow older, and often wonder “Is this normal?”. All this worrying and stress comes from a place of wanting the best for our kids, and an effective way of raising children is having as much knowledge as possible.
If you’ve ever wondered whether your children’s defence mechanisms are to be expected, or if they might be a sign of anxiety, keep reading.
4 common defence mechanisms
Children often use one or more of these common defence mechanisms (click here to learn more about defence mechanisms).
Denial is when a child denies their feelings. Usually, this looks like them pretending they don’t care, when it’s quite clear that they actually do. After getting a bad grade on a school project, your child might say, “Who cares about grades? I didn’t even try.”
Kids tend to act this way when they believe that expressing their true emotions would make them look weak or foolish. As a parent, it’s essential not to take these words at face value, and instead scratch beneath the surface to genuinely connect and let your child know their real feelings are valid.
Conversion refers to feelings of stress and anxiety that manifest as physical symptoms. For instance, if other kids have been bullying your child, it’s not uncommon for your child to complain of a stomach ache or headache in the morning before school. They aren’t making up the physical symptoms in an attempt to get out of something they don’t want to do. Their discomfort is real, but it’s rooted in emotions rather than physical problems.
By addressing the cause of the stress and anxiety, the physical symptoms tend to subside. This particular defense mechanism is prevalent in children who have underlying anxiety.
Rationalisation is when a child justifies their misbehaviour or inappropriate actions. Usually, this form of acting out is hiding some type of emotion that the child is uncomfortable with. For example, maybe your child lashed out rather than getting the teacher involved when a classmate took their favourite pencil without asking. Your child explains, “I didn’t tell the teacher what happened because they wouldn’t have done anything to help.” When your child acts out, it’s important to help them communicate what they’re really feeling underneath.
Displacement is when children transfer their emotional reactions to something or someone unrelated to the situation that they’re upset about. Perhaps they’re mad at a friend but don’t want the friend to tease them, so they direct their anger towards you instead.
In most cases, kids aren’t aware that they’re displacing their anger; they simply get overwhelmed with emotion and need to let it out. The key is to recognise that displacement is occurring, so that you can help your child understand what they’re actually upset about. Then, you can teach them more constructive ways to respond to their emotions.
Spotting a sign of anxiety in children
The four types of defence mechanisms above are considered normal, but they may indicate an underlying issue when paired with some of the signs of anxiety below.
- Having trouble concentrating
- Not being able to sleep, having bad dreams, or wetting the bed
- Not eating normally
- Being easily angered or irritated
- Losing control of emotions
- Using the bathroom frequently
- Feeling fidgety and tense
- Crying frequently or being constantly tearful
- Acting clingy
- Feeling sick or complaining of headaches/stomach aches
- Seeming incapable of facing everyday challenges
- Avoiding everyday activities like school and spending time with friends
- Constantly thinking that bad things are going to happen
How to Help a Child Experiencing Anxiety
If you believe your child is experiencing anxiety, you should first talk to them about it. Explain to your child what anxiety is, and how it can affect them mentally and physically. Show them that you understand, and you’re there for them. Do your best to help them find solutions and healthy ways to cope. For many children, a trusted parent’s reassurance can help anxiety dissipate.
Here are some strategies to ease your child’s anxiety:
- Stick to regular daily routines
- Look for books and movies that will help them understand their feelings
- Avoid becoming anxious and overprotective yourself
- Teach your child breathing exercises
- For young children, play games and find ways to distract them from their anxiety
- Create a “worry box” where your child can write down or draw the things they’re worried about, then go through the box together daily or weekly
If your child is constantly anxious and nothing seems to be helping, seeking professional help is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s especially crucial to contact a professional if your child’s anxiety negatively impacts their school performance or relationships with family and friends. Untreated anxiety is likely to harm your child’s self-esteem and confidence, and it often results in avoidance of situations that make them feel anxious, which can ultimately make their anxiety worse.
You can start with a visit to the GP, who will be able to make any necessary referrals. It’s also wise to speak to your child’s school counsellor or teacher to make them aware of what’s going on.
While many defence mechanisms are completely normal, they can be a sign of anxiety when paired with certain symptoms. Don’t hesitate to reach out and get your child the help they need.