Behaviour or Anxiety: How to Spot The Difference

In my Hertfordshire clinic, I use my basement to deliver training for some of the NLP4Kids practitioners and I also deliver training to young people under my not-for-profit organisation Superheroes.

The workshops that I’m at delivering at the moment are for young people who have issues around anxiety and I’ve started to notice that some young people that I meet whose parents believe they have anxiety are not all that anxious! There may be times in their lives when they have presented signs of anxiety or with very anxious behaviours and reactions, but sometimes what looks like anxiety is actually anxiety behaviour.

Anxiety is a horrible thing, it’s a really uncomfortable feeling and it’s really important the people who are in that state have got the right tools to be able to get themselves out of it again. That’s the first thing, the second thing is that it’s also important that we sometimes step away from what tools and strategies this person needs. What I also think is important is that we look at what are the other factors surrounding this young person? What are the environmental influences that may be impacting upon how this young person is behaving and reacting because sometimes it’s not anxiety?

Sometimes it is related to anxiety because maybe they have a sense of uncertainty or a sense of unsafeness going on inside of them but if we were to reshape some of the environmental things or some of the chaotic things that are going on around them, they actually wouldn’t have that anxiety problem anymore, so there’s maybe only so much that I can do in terms of giving them tools and resources to be able to manage their emotions better. Sometimes the solution isn’t in them, the solution is in the other stuff that’s going on around them.

Here’s what I mean: sometimes when we have a young person who is anxious and a parent, carer or professional who is working with them our inclination is to really want to get them out of that bad feeling as quickly as possible. We give them options. Lots of options; we say what do you need right now? Do you need a hug? Do you want to watch a movie? Do you want to have a drink? Do you want to cancel your playdate? Do you want to go to bed? We bombard them with all of these different options in the hope that one of them might be the solution.

I think that comes about because when children are very young and they lack communication skills you are playing guesswork, you just sort of bombard them with all these different options in the hope that if they’re upset one of the options might distract them and take them off in a more positive direction. I think that sometimes we get stuck in a rut and we continue with that behaviour as the adult in the situation even when their child is perhaps 10, 11, 12, 19 years old. We’re still going ‘what do you need? What can I do to make you feel better? You know my desire right now is for you to not be sad or in pain, so I’m going to offer you as much as I can to help change that anxious feeling’.

Here is the challenge, this means we are not leading the situation. It means that we are giving the power to them and that then positions us in a place of uncertainty and we then appear to be not sure about what the solution is in that situation. I’ve talked a lot this year about boundary setting – it is a fact that children who have boundaries feel safer and sometimes boundaries come in the form of discipline. Children who are disciplined report that they feel safer in their lives because they know where the boundaries are, they know what the rules look like. If we’re being a bit wishy-washy it shows that we don’t have a framework there for how to deal with that particular problem when we’re in that situation.

A useful way for us to respond is to say do this, take this and to be very direct. In the world of hypnosis, which is also one of the skill sets that I sometimes use with young people and also adults, is what we call ‘patterns of direct or indirect suggestions’. An indirect suggestion is where it’s very open-ended, there are multiple opportunities, different ways in which you can take the question, so you can, as the client, choose your own way forward. A direct suggestion is where we’re much more forceful, we tell them what we want them to think, we tell them how we want them to feel and we just give them the one channel that they’re going to pass through.

When you have someone who is anxious (be that a young person or an adult) it’s a good idea to use direct suggestions with them. We don’t want to be too wishy-washy because they’re already in a bit of a wishy-washy state, so we have to give very clear directions. We aren’t always going to get it right but what will happen is that young person will begin to identify you as someone who comes from a place of certainty. Even if what your suggestion isn’t the right fit for them the fact that you have said it with conviction and that you believe it will bring about a result for them but it will create a sense of being sure of yourself.

When we are unsure we like to be with other people who are sure; if we are uncertain we look to the people who have certainty to lead us. Think about politics for example, you know you don’t vote for someone who’s a bit like ‘wow you could have this or we could do it this way or we could do that etc’. I think you should choose the people who say this is what we need to do and this is how we need to do it. When we’re uncertain, we want someone to lead us, even if later on we go now that wasn’t quite the right thing, we still want to have that alignment with people who are giving off that perception of certainty.

That is your job here as the parent or professional working with someone who is anxious. You need to give off bags of certainty and what that will also start to do is it will start to separate out the young people who have a genuine anxiety problem versus the ones who have perhaps more of a behavioural problem that perhaps presents itself in uncertain anxious sorts of ways at times. We want to be able to say ‘well you have a genuine anxiety problem and here’s how we’re going to be able to solve it’ versus ‘your issue is possibly not anxiety this is more coming from behaviour so we’ve got to set some boundaries here with you guys’. We need some strategies so that we can start to separate them and see who needs what.

As I said, the key thing to remember here is that when you propose what the solution is you’re just going to go with one at a time. Don’t suggest multiple things and if you are giving options it’s either this or this make a decision. We’re not going to give multiple solutions to a problem because it’s too overwhelming. If someone genuinely has anxiety they can’t make both kinds of decisions anyway – they’re already confused and they need a leader at this point in time. When we do this we’re going to do it from a place of certainty, even though we don’t know if it’s the right solution. We might not even know if it could work but we’re going to do it from a place of certainty so that that young person begins to get their reassurance from how we respond to them.

We don’t want to be responding any more from this position of ‘let me offer you this, let me offer you that’, ‘what is it that you need right now’, we’re not going to give them so many options. We’re going to give them much more direct suggestions and notice how they start to gravitate towards that position of certainty. Parents are probably more guilty of overly giving than other professionals are, simply because other professionals are going to behave like professionals. They’re always going to have a boundary there anyway because they have a job to do, whereas with parents it comes more from a place of love and when you see your young person in pain or discomfort it’s more about soothing that rather than going at it with what could be perceived as a harder edge.

So set boundaries, act with certainty, give direct suggestions from a place of love. If you can do that instead of giving too much from a loving place we actually prevent someone from growing and developing and then it gets to be more about meeting your own selfish needs. It makes us feel better to give out all that love and to do all the nice stuff whereas when we need to be a bit firmer and harder perhaps with ourselves with that young person, it feels a bit colder. It doesn’t fulfil us in the same sort of way. That’s what puts them in a position where they need to grow and be independent, so it’s a greater gift further on down the line. I am really encouraging you to come from a place of certainty, give direct suggestions and keep on with boundary setting, it’s really important.

By Gemma Bailey

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