Caregivers, disabilities, special needs, parents, families, The Positive Intention of Anxiety

The Positive Intention of Anxiety

How do you know if your child’s or parent’s behavior is anxiety or bad behavior? What is anxiety? What is the positive intention of anxiety? How can we tell whether or not a behavior is related to an existing diagnosis or to anxiety? What are symptoms of anxiety? What kind of support can you provide? This article seeks to answer all of these questions and help find support.

How do you know if its anxiety?

We were getting our four children ready for school and our daughter burst into a hysterical crying fit. These outbursts had started to become a regular occurrence. Honestly, we thought that she was attention-seeking.

The outbursts seemed to be isolated to occurring at home. Then, the outbursts started happening in school right before she had to take a test; test anxiety didn’t make sense because she was a straight-A student. How do any of us know if these types of outbursts are more than just attention-seeking behavior? What if your aging parent starts yelling at you every time you take them to the adult day center? What if your special needs child starts banging their head against the wall whenever you go to the park? If behaviors persist and start to interfere with daily life, it might be more than just a tantrum. It could be anxiety.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety disorders are one of the most common health problems of childhood and adolescents.  According to, anxiety can cause people to feel frightened or distressed during situations where others would not feel afraid. There are several types of anxiety you might hear: generalized anxiety, OCD, phobias, social anxiety, panic attacks, and PTSD. Regardless of the type of anxiety, there is a positive intention from the body in causing anxiety. The body’s job is to protect itself. Therefore, anxiety is a result of the body trying to protect itself. Anxiety is not a willful negative behavior your caree is using to get something they want or as a desperate plea for attention.

Your loved one is most likely just as confused as you are by their behavior. If you can reconsider that behavior is a form of the body’s non-verbal communication, you can handle the situation accordingly.

Is the behavior due to an existing diagnosis?

If the behavior is a form of communication, how do you know if its anxiety or an existing diagnosis? While you cannot always tell if the behavior is related to a diagnosis or an anxiety disorder, the condition might contribute to the anxiety or vise versa. If your loved one has dementia and is limited verbally, they may not be able to tell you their stomach hurts due to anxiety, but they may start or increase self-injurious behaviors.

It is important to know that existing diagnoses might have issues that can make it more difficult to see signs of anxiety. The symptoms of anxiety are important to understand so you can use this to determine if you have more going on.

What are symptoms of anxiety?

If we are not always able to tell if a behavior is due to an existing diagnosis or if it is anxiety, what are some potential symptoms and how might they present themselves differently if your caree has another diagnosis? Anxiety symptoms include physical signs like stomach aches, headaches, or muscle tension. If you have a nonverbal caree with an autism diagnosis, they might increase head banging activities.  Other anxiety symptoms include excessive complaining, crying, tantrums, bad moods, behavior progressions, clingy behavior, or manipulative behaviors like aggression or self-harm. All of these symptoms might show up in a unique way depending on your loved one’s initial diagnosis. So, what do you do?


If you identify symptoms that may be related to an anxiety disorder, it is always best to seek a medical professional’s input. However, here are a few tips.

There are a few strategies for supporting people with anxiety. Make sure to observe them and see if you can identify triggers, changes in behavior, or clues. If you are able to notice any of these before an anxiety attack, you can encourage them to self-soothe. This can include techniques like counting, taking deep breaths, meditation, or visualization.

If you are unable to prevent the behaviors using observation, you can try to help them avoid triggers. You can do this by creating an anxiety toolbox. Include things like a security item, fidget items, eye masks, weighted lap blankets, headphones, or other items that reduce negativity. You can also assist your loved one by rewarding good choices, so they have models for appropriate behaviors. You can work to anchor positive thoughts and experiences to the location that is causing them the anxiety.

If you are unable to help with any of the above strategies, removing your caree from the area that seems to be causing the anxiety. Give them a quiet place to decompress or a safe place to reset or rest.

The Positive Intention of Anxiety – Recap

It was hard to see our daughter’s anxious behavior as a positive intention when we were trying to calm her down. However, we found that we often needed to use the same techniques for ourselves before we attempted any interventions. We often had to consider whether our child with an autism diagnosis was dealing with a typical social avoidance behavior common with her diagnosis or if it was an escalating social anxiety disorder. Either way, if we took the time to calm ourselves with a few deep breaths, then observed the behavior of our daughters to see if we could pinpoint what the behavior was trying to communicate to us, we were better able to use trial and error to help support our girls.

Anxiety, if it persists, can interfere with your loved one’s daily life.  However, whatever behaviors they are exhibiting are not bad or naughty; that is a judgement of a physiological response. Physiological responses are neither good or bad, they just exist. As with all behaviors, they are the body’s way of communicating a message that there is something wrong and it requires our help and assistance to address. Anxiety is essentially the body’s fight-or-flight response kicked into overdrive and it is trying to help your child feel better. Our job as caregivers is to see the signs that our caree might miss and try to help them uncover the solution to the body’s problem.

Whether or not a caree has special circumstances can complicate or make observing behaviors and identifying their source more challenging at times. Yet, if we are observant and look for changes in behavioral patterns, repeated triggers to behaviors, physical signs, or increases in seemingly excessive behaviors, it can be a sign that our caree needs more natural supports. Effective supports might differ based on your caree’s abilities. For instance, you might not use counting to ten with a caree that is non-verbal or is unable to count. As with many behavioral interventions, assisting with anxiety is often a result of trial and error.

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