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Out of Control Child: Stopping the Family Anxiety Cycle

by Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
Out of Control Child: Stopping the Family Anxiety Cycle

Does your child's behavior make you feel out of control? Do you find yourself walking on eggshells so that you don’t “set him off?” It might be your five year old who has tantrums and acts out, or perhaps it’s your teenager who fights with you all the time. Your consequences mean nothing to him, and in fact seem to make him more defiant. Whatever the reason, you've got the kid who simply doesn't react to parenting the way you thought he would. Debbie Pincus, creator of the Calm Parent: AM & PM, explains how you can change the way your family interacts.

When a child becomes the “anxiety sponge” for the family he or she will often develop some problems.

If you have a "problem" child, you are not alone. Many families struggle with difficult, acting-out kids who act like nothing matters to them, which in turn leaves you feeling baffled and lost. You lose sleep most nights wondering, “How did my family get here? What’s going on and how can we change things so our lives aren’t a battle zone?”

Related: How to parent calmly—even in the midst of a family battle zone.

While there are many helpful techniques parents can use with their kids—in fact, Empowering Parents is full of articles that will help you parent more effectively—I’d like to view this problem from a slightly different angle today. So let’s step back and look at the big picture: What really happens when a kid acts out chronically in a family and the attention all goes to them? And how can parents turn this around?

The Big Picture

In order to turn things around with your child, I believe it’s helpful to widen the lenses that we use to view our difficult kids. Let’s say you’re focused on your acting-out child—attempting to fix and change him—only to find that his behavior is worsening. (Or perhaps it changes, but only temporarily.) To a certain extent this happens because you’re looking at your child as the "problem" rather than seeing the way the family operates as a whole. When you can see your family in this new way you’ll recognize that your child is only part of this unit—a fragment of the whole.

What do I mean by this? Think of it this way: Each family member is only a part of the larger group. Children with problem behaviors are rarely the underlying problem, though some kids are more defiant and rebellious from the start, and therefore more difficult to parent. They may come this way, genetically predisposed to act out more and be rebellious. As a result of their difficult behavior, you naturally begin to focus on them. For the most part, kids who act out are symptoms of something much larger—often, it’s an emotional or relationship problem. This does not lay the blame on anyone; it simply means every member of the family group is a contributor in some way. I believe that if you want to go about changing the problem, you need to get the focus off the “symptomatic” one and instead onto the relationship patterns in the family. I also want to add here that if this is going on in your family, it’s not too late: it’s possible to change your family’s pattern no matter what stage you’re in with your child.

Related: Want to change the unhealthy patterns in your family?

Let's consider how anxiety travels in a group of people. If Dad comes home from work upset about a deal that didn't go through, he may automatically take it out on Mom by criticizing her about the messy house. Mom may react to this by shutting down or defending herself, but either way the anxiety has moved to Mom. Next Jack, the two-year-old, seeing or feeling Mom's distress, starts crying. The anxiety has moved to him. Now Chloe, the six-year-old, experiences this emotional intensity and feels uncomfortable and upset. She runs to her room and starts yelling and acting out.

In this way, anxiety moves from person to person in a family unit. This is a natural and automatic response. Most of the time, rather than disturbing everybody in the family, anxiety seems to settle in one person—often a child. In the family just described, the original anxiety exchange was between the two parents. If they don't get it worked out over time, the six year old might continue to react to the intensity by acting out more and more—and the adults will begin to focus on her. Not realizing that their child's response is an expression of anxiety that came from the family unit, they may come to see her as the problem and begin worrying about her. The more she is fretted over, the more anxious and symptomatic she will become—and the more symptomatic she becomes, the more focused they will become on her. The cycle has now been set in motion.

When a child becomes the “anxiety sponge” for the family he or she will often develop some problems. If the adults put the focus on the child and not on themselves, they never get to resolve their own problems or ineffective patterns—instead, the over-focused child will develop problems.  Take into account that when anxiety collects in a person, their brain and body chemistry becomes changed. As a result, the child may show hyperactivity, learning issues, or behavioral or social symptoms. Once a disorder develops, more and more intense focus is drawn to their problems at home and at school. It becomes a vicious cycle that’s hard to stop.

Related: How to stop the “anxiety sponge” effect.

This snowball effect can start simply: Let’s say every time a mother is upset, she offloads her stress by complaining loudly. The father shuts down and withdraws and then the child picks up on his distress. Kids are very tuned in. If you have a child who's particularly vulnerable to moods, he might absorb or take on the stress and become the sponge. You’ll see him becoming anxious in some way; he’ll be the one with the “symptoms.” While there’s no one to blame for this, it's ultimately our responsibility as parents to keep an eye out and not let our stuff spill onto our kids.

How to Stop the Cycle

If you see this cycle happening in your family, the first thing to do is recognize it for what it is. Stop it by taking the intense focus off your acting-out child and pay more attention to yourself and your relationship patterns. Ask yourself some hard questions, like the following:  “By putting so much focus on my child, what do I get to avoid in myself and in my own adult relationships?” Consider what he might be expressing through his behavior. Are these expressions of tension in the family, or ineffective relationship patterns that need more attention paid to them?

Related: Stopping the family anxiety cycle—for good.

Remember that your family, not your child, is the emotional unit. This will help you see that you are a part of the problem, and also part of the solution. Work to change what is under your control instead of worrying, over-focusing and trying to control your child. If you begin to see that your child is the symptom-bearer of the family unit rather than a “problem child,” you’ll be more understanding and empathetic rather than angry and frustrated. Don’t get me wrong, you still need to hold him accountable for his poor behavior. But now, instead of seeing him as “broken” or the problem, you’ll hold him to higher expectations.

Don’t get me wrong, when our kids are acting out, we need to hold them accountable rather than anxiously focus and fret about them. What’s the difference between anxious parenting versus being parental? Being responsible and standing our ground is being parental, because we’re doing what our child needs to guide him to a better place. Anxious parenting happens when our emotionality slips in and we start reacting to our child rather than responding to his behavior thoughtfully, and most of the time we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

Pause and ask yourself some important questions.

  • Why aren't I taking a firmer stand right now when I know that would be best?
    (Do I want him to like me or validate me? Or am I just trying to contain my child's anger so my husband doesn't get mad at him or me?)
  • Am I acting from my best principles that might cause some short-term pain for some longer-term gain?
  •  Is the consequence I’m giving my child right now actually a disguised punishment to get back at them for their awful behavior? (Is this really the best way or does it just feel good in the moment because it relieves my distress?)
  • Am I afraid to discuss some issues with my spouse? To avoid each other do we instead deflect onto our kids? Are they getting caught in the middle and acting out this adult tension?

 Most of the time we think we’re being thoughtful in our responses to our acting-out kids but often we’re actually being reactive, adding fuel to the already hot inferno.

Related: How to set limits and give consequences effectively.

What Can Parents Do?

Take care of yourself. Take care of yourself emotionally and physically, so your children don't end up with that job. Pay attention to and attend to your adult relationships. Instead of being irritable and upset, say what’s on your mind. Resolve issues so that your unresolved anxieties don't get spilled on to your kids.

Observe. Observe yourself and your relationship patterns: your own thinking, feelings and behavior. See how your family's (both nuclear and extended) emotional pressures contribute in producing your child's negative behavior. Consider what's going on from wider lenses. See the whole family drama.

Set limits and give enforceable consequences. If your child is acting out, set limits and give him enforceable consequences. Take charge, not control. Be parental; don’t parent with an “anxious focus” on your child.

Recognize your own contribution. Start with yourself and go from there. After all, you’re the only one you really have control over in life. Look at what's in your hands, not what's not in your child’s hands. Watch what you’re doing and try to be as clear and direct as possible. You’re not responsible for your child’s outcome and you're not the cause of the problems. If you can look at your contribution then you can change that part of yourself that’s adding to the cycle of anxiety and bad behavior.
Try to parent from your principles, rather than from your deepest anxieties. By understanding how your family operates—and how anxiety operates in your family—you can use your principles to guide your thinking and responses. This will help to stop the reactivity that often gets moved from one family member to the next. Your principles, rather than your anxieties, will lead the way. And when you see your child as separate from you, you will also see yourself more clearly and more objectively.

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For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.


When I receive The Total Transformation Program, I am sure things will make sense. This article is just touching on the things that we all hope to learn and use to help our children

Comment By : Pat

my partner died 2 years ago, i have 3 children, my 16 year old son refuses to go to counciling, he's developed a temper,lashs out alot,has no intrest in school, hanging around with the wrong crowd and as alone parent i do not know wat to do i try talking to him but he gets annoyed all the time im so worried

Comment By : pamela

Wow. A completely new way of looking at the 'problem child' issue. It takes courage and short term pain, as emphasized here. Thank you.

Comment By : JG


Comment By : radadams

This all sounds good and I can see how this could happen in terms of becoming an anxiety sponge. But, if the child is ODD and genetically predispositioned to create anxiety, there's no answer in this article. We have one child that responds negatively to anything that is not exactly what she wants, she is hateful to her siblings, and the house is full of anxiety when she is in it, and nearly anxiety free when she is out of it. As parents, we communicate regularly and openly, we have looked to ourselves and tried to make changes where we need to, we have done our best to be consitent with consequences are meaningful and constructive, basically followed most of what you suggest, and have also tried counseling. Nothing makes a difference with her. At this point, we are just focusing our energies on surviving until she is 18 and minimizing her negative effects on the other kids.

Comment By : Eugene

Excellent article. So important to show love as much as you can. This helps to build a bank of positive feeling to buffer the anxious or acting-up times.

Comment By : AJ

Wow, I wish there was information that could help a teacher negotiate some of these great points.

Comment By : ProudUnc

This simply stated article does a great job explaining "anxiety sponge" theory. It is easy for me to understand after my "emotionality slip." However, it is difficult to realize what is going on in tention filled times. Some children have behavioral issues due to a trama they may have suffered. It could be a death of a significant person in their life; a separation from family members; or some other sad senario that you may not even want to think about your own-self; Thus being in denial, which I learned hurt us more than it ever helped. And, now that I know what the issue was or rather is, I no longer neglect to acknowledge the reality and i am working on controlling my "anxious" self so I can better help my child get through okay.

Comment By : Single Parent

I have gained more helpful information from "Empowering Parents", than I have from YEARS and thousands of dollars in therapy.......I think this "common sense" approach should be mandatory course work for anyone considering going into a mental health profession. I am tired of being "strung along" by mental health providers and their psycho-babble, only to walk out of their offices feeling frustrated and financially depleted.

Comment By : CJ

I have sympathy for Eugene's comment. I have definitely felt the same with my daughter. She has turned it around these past two weeks and is such a joy. So, hang in there and have hope. One thing that was helpful in that turn around was being loving and not showing my dislike for her. Debbie has a good article on that.

Comment By : a

* Dear Eugene: I can understand how frustrating it is when you’re doing all the right things as a parent, but as you said, “Nothing makes a difference” with your ODD daughter. It is very difficult with a child with ODD. Sounds like you have determined what you can and will do and that you are managing the anxiety in the house as well as possible. Not easy, but from what you have written, sounds as though you have not let her behavior determine how you will parent. Continuing to stay focused on communicating authentically, looking at yourselves and making necessary changes, being consistent with meaningful consequences and showing up day after day is what you are doing to be the responsible, loving parents that you want to be. Remember, we don't do this in order to try and change our acting out children—if we do, it probably won't be effective—we do this as part of our own self-definition and as a preservation of our own integrity. It sounds like you shifted your focus from your daughter to yourselves and what comes with that will be more stamina. I love how you say you are now focused on your own and your family’s welfare rather than focusing on "changing" her—often this shift comes when we are at the end of our ropes. By doing what you are doing, you are actually nurturing her growth without perhaps realizing it. Our children's growth has more of a chance of happening when we get out of their way while at the same time preventing them from overtaking us. By behaving like grown-ups, you yourselves are helping her to grow up. Best of luck and thanks for your comments.

Comment By : Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

My family situation is very similar to Eugene's. My 14 year old son is definitely the "emotional sponge" of the family in both households(1wk at dads,1wk w/me). He picks up on everyone's feelings and emotions and his emotional outbursts are so out of control sometimes, that no one can even talk to him. When he is at my house even for one day, the whole household is in an uproar from the moment he walks in til the moment he leaves slamming the door screaming at everyone. My 11 year old daughter doesn't even want to be around him, ever. That breaks my heart, they use to be best buddies, but now all they do is fight and bicker! No one can stand it. I have done everything in your articles, we focus on our own behavior, we try not to yell, the consequences we set for bad actions are directly related and we discuss what the kids did that got them in trouble in the 1st place. (my daughter even said, 'well when I am at your house you always talk to me after you send me to my room and tell me why!') I was shocked that she noticed and that it mattered so much to her- in a good way. My son only sees negativity in everything, and it seems that he only knows how to communicate to anyone by fighting/bickering. I am at a loss, he is back in counseling, but the counselor doesn't want the parents there...this frustrates me b/c we have issues we would like her to bring up with my son to see how he responds. This has been a long road,(7 yrs since separation) his father pretty much (hates) me and my partner and that makes everything worse. The kids like their "step-dad" but hear awful things about him and me so often, that their views are tainted. We have a mess on our hands. But like you have said, we can only change,focus, on ourselves. So that is what my partner and I do on a daily basis and set a good example for my kids. I can only hope that with time my son will see that his behavior is unacceptable, that it is not welcome in our home and that he can change like we have. Any advice for a drowning mom?

Comment By : punksmom

* To 'punksmom': It sounds like you are in a difficult situation, and you are doing everything within your power to “be parental” as Debbie mentions in the article. You cannot control what your son does, but you can and are holding him accountable for his acting out behavior. By continuing to be consistent in this approach, your son will learn that fighting with family members, screaming and slamming doors is not effective for him. It’s tough that your son’s counselor does not want you present during the sessions. One thing that might be helpful for you to consider is family counseling rather than, or in addition to, individual therapy. Family counseling would focus on the family as a unit, as mentioned in the article, rather than just on your son. If you and your family are not currently working with anyone to get support in your local community, a good place to start is 211 is an informational service that can help to connect you with resources in your area. You can also reach them by calling 1 (800) 273-6222. Good luck to you and your family as you continue to work through this. We know this isn’t easy.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

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Family Anxiety Cycle, Out of Control Child, Calm Parenting

Responses to questions posted on are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

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