Sweaty palms, stomach in knots, deep dread in your soul.
Everyone feels anxious every now and then, but for a child with ADHD, anxiety is a too-familiar feeling.
A child with ADHD knows they have trouble with impulse control and blurting out the first thing that comes into their head. They know they will probably hurt someone’s feelings, get in trouble, or laugh too loud at a joke. Suddenly, all eyes are on them and they are not kind eyes.
To a child with ADHD, this knowledge can lead to a near-constant state of anxiety. How can you avoid feeling anxious and worried when you know you are different?
ADHD and anxiety often go hand-in-hand in a child (or adult) with ADHD, leading to an emotional, stressful journey that makes social situations, school, or work difficult to manage. Many parents are surprised that their children suffer from anxiety caused by ADHD, but anxiety can be managed with a few simple strategies that work for teaching ADHD in the classroom or at home.
What the Research Says about ADHD and Anxiety
ADHD is classified as a disorder of attention and executive function, but an anxiety disorder is classified as a person who feels stressed, uneasy, and even frightened in normal, non-threatening situations.
While ADHD and anxiety are two different conditions, they can play off one another. Knowing that you are impulsive and likely to say the wrong thing can create anxiety. Constant anxiety can make it harder to concentrate.
According to Psych Central, about 40 percent of children and adults with ADHD also suffer from anxiety, either mildly or as a full-blown disorder.
Ari Tuckman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist specializing in ADHD told Psych Central,
“People with ADHD, especially when untreated, are more likely to feel overwhelmed and to have more things fall through the cracks which evokes more frequent negative situations—others are angry with them, they feel disappointed in themselves.”
Individuals with ADHD are also typically more sensitive than others, which means they feel emotions more strongly, including feelings of anxiety.
The Relationship Between ADHD and Anxiety
What I found most surprising is how closely ADHD and anxiety disorders are related. A study from 2007 published in Biological Psychiatry found there was a surprising link between ADHD and anxiety disorders like OCD. This study found that when family members were diagnosed with either ADHD or OCD, the risk of another family member having either ADHD or OCD were increased. The risk of diagnosis for ADHD was also elevated in individuals already diagnosed with ADHD and vice versa.
In other words, if you have a family history of ADHD, you are also more likely to have a relative or two with OCD (which is true in our family). Another study found that about 30 percent of people with OCD also have ADHD.
What to Do If You Suspect an Anxiety Disorder in Your ADHD Kid
If you suspect your child might have an anxiety disorder on top of ADHD (you can check for signs of anxiety disorders here), get evaluated by a qualified psychologist as soon as possible. Treating hidden anxiety with ADHD medication, for example, can actually make anxiety problems worse.
However, even children who don’t have a full-blown anxiety disorder tend to be anxious if they have ADHD. This can appear either as social anxiety, constant restlessness, or low self-esteem.
Children with ADHD are also more likely to be depressed and may try self-harm, as their impulsive, risky nature does not tell them that self-harm is an incredibly bad idea. Don’t dismiss any comments that your child makes about self-harm. Speak to a therapist or other qualified professional as soon as possible if your child continues to make statements about self-harm or depression.
ADHD and Anxiety at Home
Behavior therapy can help a child with ADHD work through some of the mild anxiety caused by the disorder. Common anxiety triggers include:
- Fearing the loss of friends
- Fearing they will say the wrong thing
- Fearing other kids will think they are weird
- Fearing they won’t do well in school
- Fearing they won’t do well in life
If your child mentions something about feeling anxious, spend a few minutes talking about it. When your child is in a solid emotional state, you can discuss strategies to prevent these fears from occurring.
Implement these strategies at home or school:
- Strategies for small talk
- Wait 10 seconds before speaking
- Discuss strategies to make studying easier or to prevent procrastination
- Discussing appropriate and inappropriate topics for conversation
- Talk about what to say if a friend is unkind
Books on ADHD and Anxiety
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ADHD children who also struggle with anxiety require a slightly different approach. If your ADHD child struggles with anxiety, you might find these books and resources helpful.
My personal favorite book for dealing with ADHD and anxiety for kids is The Superkids Activity Guide to Conquering Every Day. This is such a unique book that gives children the tools they need to defeat anxiety and other struggles with ADHD on their own. A child with ADHD must learn to deal with anxiety and other emotional upsets on their own, and this book helps kids do that in a non-judgmental, super-helpful way. My daughter has benefited so much from the processes and activities in this book.
The anxious child with ADHD is not alone. Although it is not discussed as much as the inattentive part of ADHD, anxiety is common and your child is not unusual if they suffer from anxiety in addition to ADHD. With the correct strategies, you can overcome anxiety.
More Resources for Parenting a Child with ADHD