Slow processing speed and anxiety: What you need to know

ByThe Understood Team

Slow processing speed and anxiety: What you need to know. A person zones out during a conversation with friends.

At a glance

  • Kids with slow processing speed often feel anxious.

  • Anxious moments can pop up throughout the day, and without warning.

  • Acknowledging anxious feelings is the first step to helping your child manage them.

Many kids who learn and think differently face situations that make them feel anxious. Often, these situations involve their challenges. For kids who have trouble reading, it might be reading out loud in class. For kids who struggle with writing, it might be doing a book report.

But for kids with slow processing speed, anxious moments can pop up throughout the day, and without warning. That’s because their processing speed difficulties can impact everything from taking tests to talking with friends. And in some cases, the frequent anxiety turns into a bigger anxiety problem.

Here’s what you need to know about the connection between slow processing speed and anxiety, and how you can help your child.

How anxiety and slow processing speed fuel each other

When any of us feel anxious, we freeze for a moment. During that time, we’re not processing information as fast as we might otherwise be. We may take longer to respond, make decisions, or size up situations.

That’s how anxiety can impact processing speed. But slow processing speed can also create feelings of anxiety.

Imagine your child sitting in class, taking a test. Other kids are moving quickly from problem to problem, while your child trails behind.

That situation might create a lot of anxiety in the moment for kids with slow processing speed. It might even make them feel anxious before the next test. And the more anxious they become, the slower they process and react.

It can be hard to tell where the anxiety stops, and the slow processing speed begins.

Why kids with slow processing speed can feel blindsided

When kids struggle in one area, like math, it can be easier for them to know when they’ll get anxious. They might get stressed out every Friday morning before the weekly math test, for instance.

But kids with slow processing speed can be blindsided by many different situations where they suddenly can’t keep up. They may not always realize how, or when, their challenges are impacting them.

Subconsciously, they know they can count on themselves to do certain things successfully. They don’t worry about whether they can organize their backpack, play soccer, or read two chapters in their history book — they just do it.

But suddenly they run into trouble doing something. Now, subconsciously, they may feel like they can’t rely on themselves. Why, if they can do so much without a problem, are they suddenly struggling?

They might be having a conversation with a coach, for instance, and miss the end of what the coach says. Or if the teacher calls on them during a group discussion in class, they might take longer to respond than the other kids. The two extra seconds it takes them to answer can feel like a year — especially when their classmates are looking at them.

It can happen in social situations, too. Kids with slow processing speed may have trouble keeping up with what’s going on in their group of friends. Or they might not react to things in expected ways because they process something, like a joke, more slowly.

Slow processing speed can also put kids in risky situations. Teens might go with friends to a party, and not pick up on the fact that they plan to drink alcohol there. Once they get there and realize that, they may start feeling anxious because they’re in a situation they don’t want to be in. They also might have trouble coming up with a way to get out of it.

How to help with slow processing speed and anxiety

Slow processing speed can be a hidden struggle. Families and kids often don’t talk about it together. Others don’t always notice the problems or pay much attention to them.

That leaves kids internalizing their struggles rather than sharing them and self-advocating for the support they need. The end result: They feel like something is wrong with them, and nobody understands.

Anxiety is something kids may hold inside and not talk about. They may be hyperaware of their emotional struggles without talking about them. That can make them feel like they’re an island.

Here are some things you can do to minimize the anxiety your child may be feeling:

Reflect on your actions. You might unknowingly be doing things that increase your child’s anxiety. If you find yourself telling your child to hurry up, recognize that feeling rushed may make your child feel anxious.

Be aware of your own processing speed. It can be a big challenge when a parent or caregiver’s processing speed is fast while the child’s is slow. It’s important to recognize and respect the fact that there’s no right or wrong speed — just differences in how each of you operate.

Acknowledge the anxiety. Calling attention to it can help kids identify their feelings — the first step toward managing them. You can say something like, “I remember before last week’s vocabulary test, you felt really nervous. Do you feel that now?”

Acknowledge the impact on the family. Your child’s slow processing speed can affect the whole family. If your child is always the last one to finish dinner or the last one out the door, family members may get frustrated or impatient. Talking openly about why that happens can help everyone feel less resentful. It also encourages the family to support and help your child.

Build an awareness of time. You can help your child build awareness of the concept of time by including references to it in everyday conversation. You might say things like, “Grandma is coming in two hours” or “It took you only 10 minutes to clean your room.”

Build in extra time. If you know your child takes longer to do things, adjust the timetable to accommodate that. For instance, give plenty of heads-up if it’s your child’s turn to unload the dishwasher (rather than waiting to say something right before dinner). Or work together to find the right time to start homework, so your child can finish with enough time to relax before bed.

Rehearse things your child can say to others. Your child may not know how to explain slow processing speed to others and may ask for help. Practice ways your child can talk about the challenges to teachers, friends, and family. For instance, your child could say to a teacher: “I sometimes need more time to do my classwork. Can I take this worksheet home and finish it tonight?”

Regroup to talk about tough situations. Your child’s anxiety may make you anxious, too. Sometimes that can lead to intense emotions and flare-ups. After you both calm down, regroup and talk about what happened. Acknowledge how upsetting it was and talk about ways you can work together to keep it from happening again.

Watch for signs of chronic anxiety. These can include physical, emotional, and behavioral signs. Understand the different ways younger kids and tweens and teens show anxiety. You can also use an anxiety log to look for patterns.

If your child’s anxiety gets in the way of daily functioning, it’s important to connect with your child’s doctor. Together you can come up with a plan.

Understanding the link between anxiety and slow processing speed is the first step to helping your child. But showing empathy is key to helping kids recognize and manage anxiety. It’s important to let them know they’re not alone, and that they have support.

Key takeaways

  • Slow processing speed and anxiety can fuel each other.

  • If you process things faster than your child, remember there’s no right or wrong speed — just differences in how each of you operate.

  • Connect with the doctor if anxiety gets in the way of your child’s everyday functioning.

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    About the author

    About the author

    The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Ellen Braaten, PhD is the director of LEAP at Massachusetts General Hospital.