6 things I wish I’d known sooner about my son’s anxiety

My son has ADHD. He’s also been anxious about school since he was old enough to be assigned homework. In first grade, he was melting down every night when it came time to do his daily 10-minute reading assignment.

When my son was 11, he was diagnosed with anxiety. Today he’s in middle school, and we finally have a good plan in place for his ADHD and anxiety. But it’s been a frustrating and sometimes miserable road to where we are now.

Here are the six things I wish I’d known sooner about my child’s anxiety.

1. Anxiety can look like physical illness.

Headaches, nausea, stomachache, vomiting…. I can’t tell you how many times my son missed school because of these types of ailments when he was young. Even though I knew something wasn’t right, it didn’t occur to me that they were related to anxiety. I didn’t connect anxiety and physical symptoms like headaches and vomiting.

These days, I track my child’s physical complaints as red flags for how he’s feeling. I’ve learned to ask myself: “Is this anxiety — or something else?” In either case, I know he’s not “faking it.” These symptoms, regardless of the cause, are real.

2. Anxiety can come out as anger.

“I hate everything!” “My teachers are the worst!”

In grade school, my son would come home fuming and blaming his teachers. I chalked it up to my child hating school. But I didn’t fully understand the level of dread he was feeling inside.

What I realized is that when my son is experiencing serious anxiety, it looks like he’s throwing a tantrum. Reasoning with him doesn’t work, so I’ve learned to ride it out and wait until he’s calmed down to talk about it. Once we explore it, there’s usually something else going on — like the fear of falling behind on schoolwork, or worrying about looking dumb in class.

3. My son’s anxiety has a specific trigger: math homework.

Because of his ADHD, my son struggles with some types of executive function, like time management and self-control. Getting homework done at all, let alone on a deadline, has always been hard for him.

School is stressful for him in general. But math homework is a specific anxiety trigger for him. When there’s math homework he doesn’t understand or is behind on, he often explodes and gets so agitated he can’t function. What I know now is that my son gets overwhelmed when he’s presented with a lot of information. When a homework assignment in math is piled on top of a concept he doesn’t understand, his anxiety kicks into overdrive.

4. Talking to a professional sooner would have helped.

When I first noticed that my son was anxious, I was reluctant to go to a professional. I think I was worried about what someone would discover about my child. Or worse, I was worried someone would say there was nothing going on.

Eventually I made an appointment with our pediatrician who did a basic mental health evaluation, like one a doctor might do to determine if a patient has depression. Our pediatrician said my son definitely has anxiety. Because of my son’s age at the time, and the fact that he was already being treated for ADHD, the doctor recommended seeing a child psychologist.

Just having another adult involved — especially a professional — helped ease my fears. Both the pediatrician and the child psychologist helped me understand that I didn’t have the tools to deal with my son’s anxiety on my own. Nor did I have to do it alone. They were there to help.

5. Anxiety is more than “just stress” — it’s neurological.

Everyone deals with stress in their lives. It’s normal to feel stress about starting a new job or going to a new school.

What the professionals helped me understand is that anxiety is different from stress. It can be an almost constant worry and fear that anything and everything can (and will) go wrong, on a catastrophic level. And for some people — like my son — anxiety can make it almost impossible to function sometimes. I started to understand that anxiety isn’t a behavioral issue, it’s a neurological one.

Once I understood this, I realized it didn't matter how many time-outs I put my child in. The anxiety wouldn’t change. In fact, it made it worse to treat my child like he was the problem, instead of treating anxiety as the problem.

6. My son’s anxiety is a warning system for me.

Like other kids with ADHD, my son already has to deal with so much just to stay on top of things every day. He often gets into trouble. Other kids harass him because he acts impulsively. And he messes up on math equations when he’s called on in class.

When all of this piles up — on a given day or week — he blows his top. He’ll come home from school and rant, until eventually he dissolves into tears and tells me he wants to be homeschooled.

My son’s anxiety is my red flag warning that something is out of whack in his life. It doesn’t mean that I’m doing anything wrong as a parent, or that he’s failing as a kid. It just means we need to recalibrate our support system.

For example, maybe I need to have a chat with his counselor about better using classroom accommodations. Or maybe it’s as simple as letting him play a video game for an hour or so, before we talk about life. Either way, his anxiety helps me recognize when something in his life needs an adjustment.

Learn about the symptoms of anxiety at different ages. Download an anxiety log to help track your child’s anxiety. And read another personal story about ADHD and anxiety.

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