Anxiety. It’s a big, vague concept that’s, unfortunately, a highly common side kick to ADHD — though it often flies under the radar. I like to define anxiety as that sense of worry or fear that keeps us — or our children — in a constant state of unease.
While I think Javi was born with a bit more natural anxiety than most children, it wasn’t until things went south between Javi’s biological family and his adopted one that we realized just how much anxious energy Javi was carrying around. That — not inattention or impulsivity — was what first sent us to a psychologist’s office for a consult. Six months later we had a folder full of worksheets and bulleted lists, and a prescription for Concerta.
The anxiety, we realized during counseling, was a side effect for Javi. When he couldn’t remember the tasks we requested of him, he got anxious. When he wanted to throw himself against a wall, knew he shouldn’t, and then threw himself against the wall anyway, he got anxious. When he couldn’t stop talking in class — or couldn’t stop responding when other children talked to him — he got anxious. You get the picture.
And once the anxiety had him in its grips, all bets were off. His overwhelming feelings of worry and fear caused him to act out in childish and irrational ways: stomping around, screaming, crying, throwing his body around, hitting. The works.
Four years later and the anxiety’s still here. Javi will likely deal with it his entire life, though the anxiety subsides for many children (and others experience it much more acutely, requiring medication to help manage it). The good news is that we’ve learned to spot and deal with those anxious feelings right when they start.
For instance, yesterday Javi couldn’t remember how to spell one of his vocabulary words. He acted like it was no big deal but then he started pacing through the house. I’d know that pacing anywhere! I called him to me and tried a new approach to help him remember. When he got the spelling right three times in a row, he literally wiped his brow. That’s how worried he was — even if he didn’t know it yet.
Carrying around that anxiety can ruin any effort to help a child — especially one that has ADHD — acknowledge and manage their behavior. Anxiety turns a challenging task into one that’s impossible. Our job as parents is to determine whether anxiety has our children in its grip, and then give them strategies to handle it.
For us, some of those strategies are:
#1. Recognize anxious behavior and figure out what’s causing it (i.e., pacing, ticks, instigation, overexcitement)
#2. Set priorities and give reminders (e.g., “It’s okay if you get the answer wrong as long as you really think about it before you speak”)
#3. Keep a calm environment (i.e., clean and clutter-free living areas, soothing music, speaking in regular voices)
#4. Ask questions (e.g., “I’m not sure why you’re so upset. Can you explain to me what’s wrong?”)
So far, these strategies and a few others (that are unique to our situation) have helped to curb anxiety as its rising and pull it back if we didn’t catch it in time. Thankfully, the days of anxiety-fueled tantrums are few and far between (though they flare up whenever a new situation arises).
How do you deal with your child’s anxiety?