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. 

14 Comments

Pipee

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!

Reply
Amir

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

Reply
Lou

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.

Reply
Sabrina

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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Our children and teens can feel anxious, and do brave - but they don’t need to do it all at once. They can happen in tiny brave steps, one after the other. 

Start by encouraging them to notice the difference. Some things that feel scary will be best avoided - dark alleys, snakes, walking alone at night. Sometimes though, those things that feel scary will be growthful and important - exams, school, trying something new, approaching a challenge, taking a safe risk, separating from you when there is another loving adult who will take care of them. These things are scary, but safe. For sure, they might come with failure, or humiliation, or they might not work out as planned, but they are safe. 

Part of living bravely is having the confidence that even if my ‘what if’ happens, I’ll be okay. I can take safe risks, because whatever happens, I’ll be okay. I can do hard things, because whatever happens I’ll be okay. And we know they will be. Actually they’ll be better than okay because most times, enough times, they’ll shine.♥️
When children are in big feelings - big anxiety, big anger, big sadness - it will be really difficult for them to bring themselves back to calm without us. This is because the part of the brain that can calm big feelings isn’t quite built yet. Until it is, they’ll be looking to us for a hand. Even as adults with fully developed brains, we sometimes need the loving presence of our special person or people to help us through those big times. 

When children are in big feelings it’s less about what you do and more about who you are. They are looking for an anchor - a strong, steady presence to help bring their their world back to steady. When you calm your breathing, it will calm your nervous and let you guide theirs back to calm. 

This is NOT rewarding big behaviour. In fact, it’s doing the opposite. The brain learns from experience, so the more we guide them back to calm, the more they develop the capacity to do it on their own.♥️
Brains love keeping us alive. They adore it actually. Their most important job is to keep us safe. This is above behaviour, relationships, and learning - except as these relate to safety. 

Safety isn’t about what is actually safe, but about what the brain perceives. Unless a brain feels safe and loved (connected through relationship, welcome in the space), it won’t be as able to learn, plan, regulate, make deliberate decisions, think through consequences.

Young brains (all brains actually) feel safest when they feel connected to, and cared about by, their important adults.  This means that for us to have any influence on our kids and teens, we first need to make sure they feel safe and connected to us. 

This goes for any adult who wants to lead, guide or teach a young person - parents, teachers, grandparents, coaches. Children or teens can only learn from us if they feel connected to us. They’re no different to us. If we feel as though someone is angry or indifferent with us we’re more focused on that, and what needs to happen to avoid humiliation or judgement, or how to feel loved and connected again, than anything else. 

We won’t have influence if we don’t have connection. Connection let’s us do our job - whether that’s the job of parenting, teaching - anything. It helps the brain feel safe, so it will then be free to learn.♥️
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#parenting #parentingforward #parentingtips #mindfulparenting #neurosequentialmodel
Children are born whole and with the will to do good, but none of us are born knowing what to do or how to do when things feel big. That comes with time, lots of practice, and the loving leadership of adults who have been there before.

It can be tempting to hurry their development, or measure our own parenting by how well our children behave but development  just doesn’t work this way. Like all good things, it takes time to be able to manage big feelings or unmet needs enough so they don’t inflame big behaviour. Even as adults we won’t always act in adorable ways. (Oh don’t I know it!)

Learning how to manage big feelings without sliding into big behaviour is like anything hard we or our children learn - how to play tennis, play the guitar, read, cross the road. None of these are learned through punishment or harsh consequences. They’re learned with practice and the steady guidance of adults who ‘do with’ and take the time to show us how. The time it takes and the bumps along the way are no reflection on the adults doing the teaching, or the children doing the learning, but a reflection on the magnitude of the challenge. It’s big!

The more we take it personally when our children don’t behave as we (or the world) would like, the more likely we’ll move into shame and judgement (of them and ourselves). Ultimately this will impact our capacity to actually give them what they need, which is patience, trust in our leadership our capacity to guide them, and our strong loving presence.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting
When we punish, or do anything that drives emotional separation (shame) or physical separation from us, it teaches our children to avoid us, or please us. It teaches them that failure, falling short, or making a mistake is shameful. It doesn’t teach them anything about what to do instead, or how to learn, or how to deal with things not going to plan.

Rather than, ‘What punishment do they need to do better?’ try, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ What they need - what we all need - is someone who is calm, strong, loving, and who can handle them enough to stay when them and guide them through the tough stuff. When we focus on the relationship, it opens the way for us to guide behaviour.♥

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