Can my child’s explosive behavior be related to anxiety?

Anxiety has often been referred to as the “Great Masquerader” and for good reason.  To an untrained eye, anxiety in children can be hard to identify because it doesn’t look the way most of us expect it to.  The more obvious manifestations such as withdrawal, avoidance of people/places, crying, clinginess or trouble sleeping are easiest for parents and caregivers to identify as “anxiety”.  Extreme temper tantrums/meltdowns, opposition/defiance or aggression are much harder for people to explain away with anxiety, however, and are much more common expressions of it. In my 20 years of practice, I have seen that children who present with explosive behavior are, more often than not, struggling mightily with unaddressed anxiety. So why does this matter?  Isn’t a problem behavior simply a problem behavior that needs to be dealt with regardless of why it’s happening?  If a child is exploding, being disrespectful and aggressive, don’t they simply need a consequence to make the behavior stop?  Heck no!

Can Applied Behavior Analysis help with my child’s anxiety?

The greatest gift Applied Behavior Analysis offers us is a lens through which to view our child’s behavior that allows us to understand why our child is engaging in certain behaviors and what new skills to teach to reduce those behaviors.  If I understand that anxiety is underlying my child’s explosions, I can begin to look at how my child’s behavior gets her needs met (aka the “function” of her behavior).  For example, if my child tantrums at school before reading groups start, her teacher and I need to look at why this might be happening.  Could there possibly be an underlying reading deficit that causes her to feel anxiety that leads to a tantrum that helps her to avoid the difficult tasks in reading groups?  Again, that untrained eye might look at my kid’s tantrum and assume that she is just a difficult child who freaks out for no good reason.  We know, however, that behavior occurs for a reason and that we can find the right explanation that leads us to the most effective intervention.  I strongly encourage you to consider the role of anxiety as you peel back the layers of your child’s behavior in an effort to understand what she needs to learn in order to behave in more socially appropriate ways.  I also encourage you to consider working with a BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) to demystify the function of your child’s behavior and select research-based interventions to shape new behaviors for managing anxiety.


  • The role of anxiety is very easy to overlook when it comes to explosive, defiant or aggressive behavior. It is often at the core of these behaviors and a proper understanding of its role is critical.
  • Applied Behavior Analysis offers an approach to help parents understand how anxiety is influencing behavior and how to teach socially appropriate ways to manage anxiety be learning new skills/behaviors.
  • If parents do not properly understand why their child is engaging in explosive behaviors, they cannot properly treat it.  Working with a Board Certified Behavior Analyst can help parents to craft research-based behavior shaping programs.