How Coaching Compares to Other Support for Young People with Anxiety (and Managing Avoidant Behaviours)

Mental Health & Wellbeing Consultant - Jonny Baker | Worth-it

Jonny Baker
Consultant & Coach

February 2021

It’s Children’s Mental Health Week and we are deep within one of the most critical periods in recent history for the wellbeing of children and young people. I cannot underestimate the need for us to pool our resourcefulness in being agents for positive change for young people. The impact of this change will not only make a crucial difference in the quality of life for young people but the increased wellbeing that we are in a position to facilitate has the potential to create a ripple effect, transforming the future of our society for the better.

Coaching for Overcoming Anxiety

Anxiety is something we all experience. Some of us may also have experienced periods of generalised anxiety, feeling unable to control our thoughts, feelings and worries. Generalised anxiety can feel constant, or overwhelming and can affect many parts of our lives, such as our wellbeing, our relationships, our education and our work.

Coaching accesses patterns of thinking, feeling and behaviours that are associated with or give rise to anxiety. It focuses on how we would choose for those patterns to be different and what may be possible when such differences are manifested. Coaching breaks down the process of embedding these chosen patterns into our day-to-day lives in manageable steps and keeps us accountable and on-task to manifesting them.

Other Common Approaches to Overcoming Anxiety

Some other approaches that may be found in educational settings (or through GP referral) include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Counselling and Mindfulness. These approaches all overlap with one another and with coaching. However, there are some notable differences:

  • Similar to Coaching, “CBT is based on the concept that your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions are interconnected, and that negative thoughts and feelings can trap you in a vicious cycle” (NHS, 2019). – A CBT Therapist may be more inclined to offer solutions to their clients, based on their analysis of the interaction of their clients’ thoughts, feelings and actions. Conversely, a Coach may be more inclined to guide their client to make this discovery for themselves.
  • A Counsellor encourages their clients to talk about their feelings, often focussing on past events and emotions, whereas Coaching usually focuses on the present and future. They do not usually give advice, or tell clients what to do, creating a space for clients to come to these understandings of their own accord (NHS, 2020).
  • A Mindfulness practitioner helps their clients to relax and meditate, opening their awareness to present thoughts and sensory information, such as feelings, sights and sounds. Mindfulness is based primarily in the present and not in the past or future. Coaching can draw upon this type of sensory awareness, but generally in the context of creating new possibilities for thinking, emotion and action (NHS, 2018).

The Importance of the Therapeutic / Coaching Relationship

A common factor underlying all personal-development and therapeutic approaches is the therapeutic relationship (Miles, 2017) – the trust and connection between practitioner and client over time. This includes characteristics such as:

  • Genuineness
    • Supporting young people with genuine intention for their improved wellbeing. Meaning what you say and saying what you mean will demonstrate that you are someone to be trusted and can create a safe space for self-expression.
  • Empathy
    • I would take this a step further, recommending compassion. Compassion refers not only to seeing and feeling from the point of view of another person (as with empathy) but combines this empathy with a genuine intention for their best interests.
  • Trusting and non-judgemental attitude
    • 2 + 2 = 5. While it is important to escalate, or refer people for professional help when you feel their situation may be above your pay grade. When you are in that trusted coaching relationship, it is important to make no assumptions as to what kind of person they may be. This can cloud the water and arbitrarily influence any judgements they may make about themselves.
  • Care and warmth
    • Imagine how you would like to be related to when talking about sensitive personal issues. It is a privilege and honour when a young person trusts you to share their feelings. They both require (for trust to take place) and deserve for you to demonstrate your care and warmth.
  • Insight and experience
    • By drawing on your lived experience you can both offer and help young people to gain insights into how they have constructed their own map of the world and how they can adapt these maps in a way that works better for them. For example, a map that “everyone hates me” can be compassionately challenged by asking “everyone?”

The quality of this relationship may be the most effective way of determining the level of success you can expect (Ardito & Rabellino, 2011). Coaches may have a more similar view to their clients about their therapeutic relationship than Counsellors and their clients (Machin, 2010). Therefore, in reflecting on their coaching relationship, Coaches may have a greater understanding of what is affecting their clients and how effectively the Coaching process is progressing.

Interested in becoming a Coach?

Find out more about our Worth-it Coach Training.

The Coaching Relationship and Self-Expression

In this balanced relationship, there is less emphasis in the distinction between “expert” and “young person”, with the potential for young people to feel more relaxed, enjoying greater freedom and opportunity to express themselves. This self-expression has clear benefits for young people, navigating their way to re-frame the wounds of mental health difficulties. Through self-expression, these wounds can form the foundations of their wellbeing, growth and flourishing.

Managing Avoidant Behaviour

As with all approaches to therapy and personal development, Coaching is empowered by the buy-in on the part of the client, equally with the Coach. Not all children or young people begin their Coaching process primed with this “buy-in”. Some may have reluctantly agreed to have Coaching by a parental, or educational adult. Some may be confused about what coaching is. Some children or young people may be wary and mistrusting about who this Coach will be and what they will do, or what they might ask them to do. This makes perfect sense and it is highly likely that I would have felt the same way when I was younger.

This does not mean that coaching cannot be effective for these children or young people. Everyone has their own way of testing to see if we are legitimately there to support them, to see our compassion, particularly if they have experienced adults in their lives as breaking trust and lacking compassion. Sometimes this needs to be demonstrated by us as Coaches – by not giving up on them, whatever they might say, or do. This involves being flexible and patient and might even mean being comfortable with doing, or saying nothing at all, simply being “there”. When they are ready to talk they will let us know.

An experienced Coach will be unphased by any resistance presented and will take the time to be curious, without an agenda to change them, or make them “better”. This Coach will be curious about what is important to the child or young person, what they might rather be doing, or what they might want to know about the Coach. In time, trust and openness to the possibility of creating something new in their life, according to their own model of the world, can be established.

8 Tips for using a Coaching Approach when Supporting a Young Person with Anxiety

  1. Connect with your genuine intentions for the wellbeing of the young person
  2. Combine this intent with your empathy, seeing through their eyes and walking in their shoes
  3. Don’t hesitate to escalate or refer the young person for professional mental health support if you feel their situation may be beyond your capabilities, or responsibilities
  4. Avoid drawing conclusions about the identity, or values of the young person and allow them to explore and adapt their own conclusions about themselves
  5. Be (appropriately) caring, warm and approachable
  6. Let your life experience and insight into the young person’s map of the world guide your questions, so that they can discover the insights that work for them
  7. Be your flexible self and resist the temptation to work hard to get them to talk. Frame “avoidant” behaviour as a process of initiation into the trust of the young person. They may, for example, want to see if you “rise to the bait” they set for you and when you don’t, they will understand that you are there for them
  8. Enjoy connecting and appreciate the gift when a young person opens up to new possibilities

Interested in becoming a Coach?

Find out more about our Worth-it Coach Training.

Ardito, R. B., & Rabellino, D. (2011). Therapeutic alliance and outcome of psychotherapy: historical excursus, measurements, and prospects for research. Frontiers in psychology2(270). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3198542/

Machin, S. (2010). The nature of the internal coaching relationship. International Journal of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring4. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/132154496.pdf

Miles, J. (2017, August 17). This is Why the Therapeutic Relationship is So Different. welldoing.org. Retrieved January 15, 2021, from welldoing.org

NHS. (2018, November 20). Mindfulness. nhs.uk. Retrieved January 15, 2021, from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/mindfulness/#:~:text=Mindfulness%20meditation%20involves%20sitting%20silently,developing%20awareness%20of%20your%20breathing

NHS. (2019, July 16). Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). nhs.uk. Retrieved January 15, 2021, from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/cognitive-behavioural-therapy-cbt/

NHS. (2020, December 8). Counselling. nhs.uk. Retrieved January 15, 2021, from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/counselling/