Navigating Two Diagnoses-ADHD and Anxiety

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a disorder diagnosed from the age of 6. The diagnosis can include a pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity. Symptoms need to occur in two different settings (for example: school and home).

Symptoms for the inattention type include: difficulty with attention to details that may often cause errors at school or other activities, difficulty retaining attention during certain tasks, struggles to follow through with instructions, difficulty organizing and planning, evades things that he or she finds uninteresting or displeasing and that require mental efforts, easily loses things, is often distracted or forgetful.

Symptoms for the hyperactivity type include: fidgets and is restless, struggles to remain seated, will run or climb in inappropriate situations, difficulty with quietly playing, often appears to have large amounts of energy, talks excessively, struggles to maintain answers, frequently interrupts others.  

Often, ADHD is comorbid with additional diagnoses such as anxiety. Anxiety can manifest in many ways, varying between specific phobias to separation anxiety. Symptoms for anxiety include feeling on edge, diminished sleep, constant worry thoughts, etc.

When children have both ADHD and anxiety, the anxiety can impact the ADHD symptoms, making them worse and increasing restlessness or lack of concentration.

How can you help your child?

If you think your child has ADHD or anxiety, or if your child has been diagnosed with both ADHD and anxiety there are a few things that can really help your child. Remember, both anxiety and ADHD are conditions that make it very difficult for your child, especially in school, impacting his or her self-esteem and self-perception. You want to make sure that your child is provided with the right interventions and tools to help him or her succeed rather than develop negative or self-critical feelings and thoughts about himself or herself. In order to assist here are a few things that can be done:

1.       Psychotherapy- Psychotherapy is very helpful for both ADHD and anxiety. Using a behavioral approach can help your child work on executive functioning skills, organization, and any behavioral concerns that may be attributed to the ADHD. At the same time, psychotherapy can address anxiety by using mindfulness, cognitive restructuring, and talking about the underlying concerns that are enhancing the anxiety. Providing your child with a safe and open space to talk about these concerns can be very therapeutic, especially for children who feel “dumb” or “lacking” due to their anxiety and ADHD which is interfering with schoolwork. By gaining coping skills your child can learn how to deal with these diagnoses without having to suffer or have low self-confidence.

2.       Medication- While many families are against medication and we respect everyone’s individual preferences, medication has been shown to be very helpful. ADHD is a neuro-cognitive disorder and therefore chemical intervention can impact the child’s ability to concentrate and relax. Additionally, medication for anxiety has also been shown to be very helpful. It reduces the feeling of being “on edge” and can calm the person’s thoughts so that they don’t worry as excessively. We understand that not all families want to put their children on medication, but it is an option to think about.

3.       Occupational Therapy- Occupational therapy is very helpful for both ADHD and anxiety, especially for children who are younger and haven’t been diagnosed yet with ADHD but are exhibiting symptoms of ADHD and/or anxiety. Occupational therapy can help your child connect more to his or her body, understanding the space around him and her, and helping work to calm and control the body. This in turn can help your child’s ability to concentrate and learn to implement more restraint. The mind and body are connected and therefore by working on the body you can help your child’s mental capacities as well. Furthermore, children struggling with anxiety can also benefit from Occupational therapy as this is a good place to use the body to express the anxiety and help reduce it.

4.       Taking breaks- taking breaks are such a useful method for children with ADHD and anxiety. Plan ahead with your child and decide on break times that would be doable for your child. For instance, if your child can only retain attention for twenty minutes decide that every twenty minutes, you’ll take a three-minute break and then for every hour take a longer ten-minute break. Use this break time to do something that will help release some pent-up energy. Do some jumping jacks, running in circles, passing a ball, or something enjoyable but energetic for your child. This too can help with anxiety because your child will not feel like a “failure” or incompetent, which may result in anxious thoughts. Your child will successfully do their assignments and thus this may reduce those anxious thoughts. Overtime expand the study time and decrease the breaks. This will shape your child’s ability to retain information and boost his or her self-esteem. Don’t be afraid to implement breaks, remember that it is better for your child to study effectively for one hour a day rather than ineffectively studying for three hours.

We hope these tips are helpful and will enable you to help your child navigate their presenting concerns!