If your child struggles with anxiety or has been through some tough stuff in their short life, you may have said this to yourself recently.

  • “She used to be able to do say the entire alphabet, now she messes up.”
  • “He will do it for his teacher, but not for me.”
  • “Yesterday he did his job, but today he pretends that he doesn’t know what to do.”
  • “She went for months without an accident, now she is wetting her pants every day.”

If these sound familiar to you, you may be assuming that your child is acting this way on purpose. Maybe you assume, as I have, that they are doing it to prove a point, be defiant, maintain control, or just get even. This may be true in rare circumstances, but I believe that the reason for this behavior is explained more logically by this simple truth:

As anxiety goes up, functioning goes down

This is a truth for every person. A little anxiety can hep us perform well, but when it reaches a certain level, it overwhelms our ability to think and/or act. The lower regions of the brain responsible for our survival gain strength and power when we are threatened at the expense of the cortex which is responsible for higher levels of functioning. One of the major difficulties in raising children who have a complex history of trauma and neglect is that this defense mechanism is activated more quickly and often times for no apparent reason. Sometimes that reason is just that the adoptive or foster mom is present (the child’s brain associates them with the previous mother that caused pain).

Our Response

I don’t think you can go wrong with assuming that anxiety and stress is the motivation. Start realizing that they really are not “playing games” and they are anxious, either about the skill or about your relationship. Then remain calm and say something like:

Hey buddy, if you are struggling right now, you need a hug to give you some extra strength. Why don’t we work on this together until you are feeling better.


It must be really frustrating to be struggling with that, would you like some help with that?

If you are wrong and if you word it right, you just completed another opportunity for attachment and trust building. If you are right you get that PLUS a reduction in anxiety that will improve their performance and build their confidence.

Lynn Owens
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Lynn Owens

Lynn is the co-founder of Forever Homes, and Owner of Canyon Lakes Family Counseling Center, a Mental Health Clinic, where he specializes in treating adopted and foster children. He has over 20 years experience in Residential Care, Foster Care and adoption. Combined he and his wife have parented about 100 kids.
Lynn Owens
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