Anxiety can drive all sorts of behaviour, which is why it can look different in different people. One of the types of behaviour it can drive is ‘fight’ behaviour – anger, aggression, and tantrums. This is the ‘fight’ part of the flight or fight response. It’s an adaptive response from a brain and body that is working hard to come back to a felt sense of safety. If behaviour is fuelled by anxiety, it has nothing to do with ‘bad behaviour’, and everything to do with a brain that has registered threat, and a body that is getting ready to respond.
Here’s how it works …
Brains are here to keep us safe before anything else – before learning, connecting, and behaving deliberately. When the brain registers threat, the amygdala (the seat of anxiety in the brain) takes over. Everything becomes about survival, safety and what’s happening right now. The ‘thinking brain’ – the part of the brain that can make deliberate decisions about how to behave, think through consequences, problem solve, and retrieve learned information (like ‘what to do when I feel angry’) – is shut down. The amygdala is in charge, and its goal is to organise the body for fight or flight. It does this brilliantly, even if unnecessarily sometimes.
The important thing to remember is that ‘threat’ isn’t about what is actually dangerous, but about what the brain perceives. This can happen from real threats or perceived threats – the brain will respond the same way to both. All sorts of things can trigger even the healthiest, strongest brains to register threat, including stress, worrying thoughts, too much noise (or anything that pushes against their sensory needs), feeling disconnected or separated from their important people, feeling tired, hungry or being asked just a little more of than they can give in that particular moment. This can happen to any of us. We can all act in ways that aren’t so adorable when important needs or feelings get too big.
When anxiety is driving behaviour, it’s important to treat the behaviour as anxiety rather than bad behaviour. Any shame kids might feel for their behaviour will only drive their anxiety harder – they want to do the right thing and they don’t want to disappoint you.
Rather than, ‘How do I make you stop?’, try this …
When children or teens are anxious, their behaviour might be messy and confusing and wildly maddening, but that behaviour will never be about a bad child. It will be about a well-intended, good-hearted child who is being driven by something we can’t see – a need, feeling, thought, or other internal experience.
Too often, when our kids do things that aren’t at all ‘lovely’ we are quick to judge – either them, ourselves, or both. The truth of it all is that as much as our kids need boundaries, they (and we) need compassion and space to find clarity.
The question for us is not so much, ‘How do I make you stop?‘ but, ‘What are you telling me right now – about what you think, what you feel, and what you need?’
All behaviour is driven by a need, and if we can look at their behaviour with curiosity (and I know how hard this can be sometimes!) we can discover the blind spots that can reveal the need. The need might be connection, attention, stillness, food, a sleep, a cuddle, space, a little power and influence (especially if they’ve been following rules all day at school) – all valid.
For sure we might be furious or baffled by what they’re doing, but if we could understand everything going on for them it would make sense. It doesn’t make their behaviour okay, but it will make it easier for us to not take it personally, and to give them the patience and support they need in the moment and afterwards.
What do they need from us?
When the brain has registered threat, more than anything it needs to be brought back to a felt sense of safety. We can do this by ‘dropping the anchor’ and being a calm, steady presence with them while the emotional storm passes.
Breathe, and be with. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed – they aren’t broken. They will want what we all want – to feel seen, heard, and safe.
What do I do when their anger is big?
While the storm is happening, preserve the connection with them as much as you can by validating what you see and letting them know you’re there. Validation doesn’t mean you agree with them. It means letting them know you understand what they are feeling, and that their feelings are valid given the way they are seeing and experiencing the world right now. The most important part of this is your nonverbals. Feel what they feel, and you don’t need to do more than that. They’ll feel you with them. Let them feel this with your posture, your facial expressions, and the way you move your body.
Sometimes words will help, ‘I can see this is big for you,’ and sometimes they won’t. If they aren’t helping, let the words go and just feel what your child is feeling. They will feel you ‘getting them’. Touch their hand or back if they are open to that, and soften your eyes and your face.
As much as you can, make your intent clear. Neutral faces, neutral voices, or ignoring their big behaviour has the potential to register bigger threat in an already upset amygdala if your intent isn’t clear. The brain is constantly searching for signs of safety and signs of danger. It will look to your face first and it will be asking, ‘Are you going to ignore me/ get mad at me/ walk away from me/ help me/ patronise me/ be here for me/ understand me?’
To help send out those signs of safety the brain is craving, try, ‘I know if I could understand everything that’s going on for you right now what you’re doing would make sense. Can you help me understand?’ They might not be able to explain if they are in big feelings, but ride the wave with them until the emotion eases and then talk. Let go of any need to move them through it. If they sense that you have an ‘agenda’ (such as to stop their big feelings), they might start to feel your impatience and this can add to their distress. Breathe and be with. Their big feelings won’t hurt them. It’s feeling alone in big feelings that hurts.
And what about consequences for big behaviour?
This doesn’t mean ‘no boundaries’. It means there are lessons for them to learn, and it’s okay if it takes time for them to learn them. These lessons will happen in a more enduring, meaningful way if there is a safe space for conversation, gentle expectations, and the influence of a loving adult to guide the way.
As the important big people in their lives, our challenge is to avoid taking their behaviour personally. This can be so hard – but it’s so important – but so hard! If we can do this, we can then approach them with curious eyes, an open mind, and an open heart. We can bring ourselves closer to them and that precious space beside them, inside their world.
Rather than thinking of it in terms of, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, try, ‘What support do they need to do better?’
Sometimes the most growthful experiences will be the reflective conversations with you. These conversations can only happen though when their brains and bodies come back to calm. This is when their ‘thinking brain’ will be back online and they will have a greater capacity to explore what’s happened with you. The conversation might sound like,
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What might you do differently next time?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘You’re such a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’
But it won’t always be easy.
Their anxiety will trigger ours, (especially if it’s the fight part of fight or flight). Sometimes we will be able to stay calm and sometimes we won’t, and that’s okay. This isn’t about perfect parenting – kids don’t need that. What they need is parents who are good enough.
Every time we can see their behaviour for what it is, stay calm and steady until the storm passes, and preserve our connection with them, we will be filling their ‘resilience cup’ and preserving our capacity to influence different behaviour next time. We will also be strengthening the neural pathways they need to find calm during anxiety or big feelings.
This isn’t intended to give them a free pass. They still need to know where the limits are, and they still need to feel the edges of those limits, but it’s important to do this gently and by giving them the information and strategies they need to make better choices. They want to do the right thing, but as with all of us, sometimes this can take a little wisdom and a lot of practice.
And finally …
Our kids and teens are no different to us. We all do things that dull our shine sometimes. We don’t do these things because we’re bad. We do them most often because we’re feeling bad. When this happens, we don’t need judgement. What we (and they) need is space to find calm and clarity. As their important big person, the space you create in your connection with them is the most healing, calming, insight-making space of all.
A young brain will respond to needs, thoughts and feelings in primitive, instinctive ways until it learns a new way. This might take time, but we have plenty of it – years actually. There are no shortcuts and there is no hurry. And don’t worry about what the rest of the world might be thinking when the bumps get bumpy – (which they often do, in public). You have been charged with the privileged role of building a small human into an adult, and you can take all the time you need.
Our job as parents and the important adults in their lives isn’t to ‘make’ our children behave, but to give them the space, gentle expectations, patience, love and influence to guide them so that they can learn how to do this (behave) for themselves. As their important adult, the space you create in your connection with them is the most healing, calming, insight-making space of all. They have the right to get it wrong as many times as it takes. They will need different things, at different times, in different ways – and there is no express lane. This is why it is a magnificent adventure for all of us.