The Connection Between Anxiety and Anger

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. 



This is a wonderful helpful article. Thank you so much. How do you recommend consequences are used when their actions hurt others? What sort of consequences would you recommend? My nearly 11yo is really in this space at the moment. Thank you again.

Karen Young

This is a great question. Remember we are trying to build empathy and support the other child to feel seen and heard. We’re also trying to support the healing of any rupture in the relationship. Start by making it safe: ‘You’re a really great kid. I know you would never hurt someone on purpose.’ Validate anything that might have moved your 11yo to do what they do (you’re validating, not approving). We’re also modelling empathy and making space for the feelings and thoughts, but putting a boundary around the behaviour: ‘I could see how annoyed you were when your friend … I get that. It’s okay to feel annoyed. It’s not okay to hit/hurt.’ Now, support them to put it right: ‘How can you put this right? Would you like my help to think of some ideas?’

Shelley A

I have just read this article and am in tears. I read the article to try to understand why my 11 year old daughter has the reaction she does after she is caught doing something wrong. This article has shown me that I am parenting and have been parenting my 4 children, two of which have ADHD, all wrong. Thank you for the ‘light bulb’ moment! I now need to try and unlearn my behaviour and relearn the correct words and way to handle those tricky situations.


Reaalllly great article.
Love the analogy of dropping the anchor and being calm… also love the prompts for a post-meltdown chat…
Keep up the ace work!


Thank you. I read a similar article a couple of years ago. The reminder is as helpful as ever.


Some of this is very helpful for me as the sounding board for my adult son who has anxiety and depression. How to listen and respond… Thank you.


This is quite helpful for our family. We have a tween that is adhd and she also has mild anxiety. I as well have anxiety (major), I have the same kind of emotional (anger) reaction and go into the fight or flight mode more often than not when my anxiety is up. Loud sudden noises along with fear of my children being hurt or sick are my big anxiety triggers. I need help controlling my own reactions when mine is heightened and learn to stay calm when my daughters is heightened.


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Melbourne, Adelaide … Will you join us? 

The @resilientkidsconference is coming to Melbourne (15 July) and Adelaide (2 September), and we’d love you to join us.

We’ve had a phenomenal response to this conference. Parents and carers are telling us that they’re walking away feeling even more confident, with strategies and information they can use straight away. That’s what this conference is all about. 

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I’ll be joining with @maggiedentauthor,, and @drjustincoulson. We’ve got you covered! And we’re there for the day, with you. 

For tickets or more info, search ‘Resilient Kids Conference’ on Google, or go to this link
We have to change the way we talk about anxiety. If we talk about it as a disorder, this is how it feels.

Yes anxiety can be so crushing, and yes it can intrude into every part of their everyday. But the more we talk about anxiety as a disorder, the more we drive ‘anxiety about the anxiety’. Even for big anxiety, there is nothing to be served in talking about it as a disorder. 

There is another option. We change the face of it - from an intruder or deficiency, to an ally. We change the story - from ‘There’s something wrong with me’ to, ‘I’m doing something hard.’ I’ve seen the difference this makes, over and over.

This doesn’t mean we ignore anxiety. Actually we do the opposite. We acknowledge it. We explain it for what it is: the healthy, powerful response of a magnificent brain that is doing exactly what brains are meant to do - protect us. This is why I wrote Hey Warrior.

What we focus on is what becomes powerful. If we focus on the anxiety, it will big itself up to unbearable.

What we need to do is focus on both sides - the anxiety and the brave. Anxiety, courage, strength - they all exist together. 

Anxiety isn’t the absence of brave, it’s the calling of brave. It’s there because you’re about to do something hard, brave, meaningful - not because there’s something wrong with you.

First, acknowledge the anxiety. Without this validation, anxiety will continue to do its job and prepare the body for fight or flight, and drive big feelings to recruit the safety of another human.

Then, we speak to the brave. We know it’s there, so we usher it into the light:

‘Yes I know this is big. It’s hard [being away from the people you love] isn’t it. And I know you can do this. We can do hard things can’t we.

You are one of the bravest, strongest people I know. Being brave feels scary and hard sometimes doesn’t it. It feels like brave isn’t there, but it’s always there. Always. And you know what else I know? It gets easier every time. I’ve know this because I’ve seen you do hard things, and because I’ve felt like this too, so many times. I know that you and me, even when we feel anxious, we can do brave. It’s always in you. I know that for certain.’♥️
Our job as parents isn’t to remove their distress around boundaries, but to give them the experiences to recognise they can handle boundaries - holding theirs and respecting the boundaries others. 

Every time we hold a boundary, we are giving our kids the precious opportunity to learn how to hold their own.

If we don’t have boundaries, the risk is that our children won’t either. We can talk all we want about the importance of boundaries, but if we don’t show them, how can they learn? Inadvertently, by avoiding boundary collisions with them, we are teaching them to avoid conflict at all costs. 

In practice, this might look like learning to put themselves, their needs, and their feelings away for the sake of peace. Alternatively, they might feel the need to control other people and situations even more. If they haven’t had the experience of surviving a collision of needs or wants, and feeling loved and accepted through that, conflicting needs will feel scary and intolerable.

Similarly, if we hold our boundaries too harshly and meet their boundary collisions with shame, yelling, punishment or harsh consequences, this is how we’re teaching them to respond to disagreement, or diverse needs and wants. We’re teaching them to yell, fight dirty, punish, or overbear those who disagree. 

They might also go the other way. If boundaries are associated with feeling shamed, lonely, ‘bad’, they might instead surrender boundaries and again put themselves away to preserve the relationship and the comfort of others. This is because any boundary they hold might feel too much, too cruel, or too rejecting, so ‘no boundary’ will be the safest option. 

If we want our children to hold their boundaries respectfully and kindly, and with strength, we will have to go first.

It’s easy to think there are only two options. Either:
- We focus on the boundary at the expense of the relationship and staying connected to them.
- We focus on the connection at the expense of the boundary. 

But there is a third option, and that is to do both - at the same time. We hold the boundary, while at the same time we attend to the relationship. We hold the boundary, but with warmth.♥️
Sometimes finding the right words is hard. When their words are angry and out of control, it’s because that’s how they feel. 

Eventually we want to grow them into people who can feel all their feelings and lasso them into words that won’t break people, but this will take time.

In the meantime, they’ll need us to model the words and hold the boundaries firmly and lovingly. This might sound like:

‘It’s okay to be angry, and it’s okay not to like my decision. It’s not okay to speak to me like that. I know you know that. My answer is still no.’

Then, when they’re back to calm, have the conversation: 

‘I wonder if sometimes when you say you don’t like me, what you really mean is that you don’t like what I’ve done. It’s okay to be angry at me. It’s okay to tell me you’re angry at me. It’s not okay to be disrespectful.

What’s important is that you don’t let what someone has done turn you into someone you’re not. You’re such a great kid. You’re fun, funny, kind, honest, respectful. I know you know that yelling mean things isn’t okay. What might be a better way to tell me that you’re angry, or annoyed at what I’ve said?’♥️
We humans feel safest when we know where the edges are. Without boundaries it can feel like walking along the edge of a mountain without guard rails.

Boundaries must come with two things - love and leadership. They shouldn’t feel hollow, and they don’t need to feel like brick walls. They can be held firmly and lovingly.

Boundaries without the ‘loving’ will feel shaming, lonely, harsh. Understandably children will want to shield from this. This ‘shielding’ looks like keeping their messes from us. We drive them into the secretive and the forbidden because we squander precious opportunities to guide them.

Harsh consequences don’t teach them to avoid bad decisions. They teach them to avoid us.

They need both: boundaries, held lovingly.

First, decide on the boundary. Boundaries aren’t about what we want them to do. We can’t control that. Boundaries are about what we’ll do when the rules are broken.

If the rule is, ‘Be respectful’ - they’re in charge of what they do, you’re in charge of the boundary.

Attend to boundaries AND relationship. ‘It’s okay to be angry at me. (Rel’ship) No, I won’t let you speak to me like that. (Boundary). I want to hear what you have to say. (R). I won’t listen while you’re speaking like that. (B). I’m  going to wait until you can speak in a way I can hear. I’m right here. (R).

If the ‘leadership’ part is hard, think about what boundaries meant for you when you were young. If they felt cruel or shaming, it’s understandable that that’s how boundaries feel for you now. You don’t have to do boundaries the way your parents did. Don’t get rid of the boundary. Add in a loving way to hold them.

If the ‘loving’ part is hard, and if their behaviour enrages you, what was it like for you when you had big feelings as a child? If nobody supported you through feelings or behaviour, it’s understandable that their big feelings and behaviour will drive anger in you.

Anger exists as a shield for other more vulnerable feelings. What might your anger be shielding - loneliness? Anxiety? Feeling unseen? See through the behaviour to the need or feeling behind it: This is a great kid who is struggling right now. Reject the behaviour, support the child.♥️

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