There’s a math test tomorrow and 14-year-old Katherine should be studying. Instead she’s in bed. “I’m not taking the test! What happens if people see I can’t do it? What if I fail again?” she cries to her mom.
Anxiety is a sense of fear and worry. And it’s easy to understand why Katherine and other children with learning and attention issues are more likely to have anxiety than other children. Many have to work harder to keep up with their classmates. Other kids may bully them. Kids with learning and attention issues may not have the coping skills or maturity to handle these difficulties.
“When anxiety stops your child from functioning or enjoying life, it’s probably time to find help.”
But anxiety can be managed. The key is noticing the signs and providing the tools your child needs to keep worry in check.
Read on to learn how anxiety is different from stress—and what might cause anxiety in kids with learning and attention issues. You’ll also learn when to get help for your child’s anxiety.
Anxiety vs. Stress
Stress and anxiety are closely related but are not the same thing.
- Stress is a natural and normal response to a challenge. Our heart pumps faster and our palms sweat as we get ready to act.
- Stress can make us feel nervous, angry, frustrated—even anxious.
- Stress can have a positive effect. For example it can “pump up” a child to study for a test.
- Stress can also be overwhelming. Feeling stress every day for a long time can take a toll on your body and mind.
- Anxiety makes a kid feel worried and afraid. “What if?” is a common phrase for anxious kids.
- The anxious feeling is often out of proportion to the real or imagined “threat” (for example, a child crying in terror because she’s afraid to enter a birthday party).
- Anxious children may expect that something bad will happen and not believe they’ll be able to handle it. (That bee’s going to sting me and I’m going to die!)
- The bad feelings associated with anxiety can come from something specific, like algebra. Or anxiety can be a more general sense of uneasiness that affects much of everyday life.
Common Causes of Anxiety
Just about everyone feels anxiety at some point. But kids with learning and attention issues may have extra reasons for feeling worried and afraid. These include:
- Anxiety about not being able to keep up: Kindergarten is often when children with learning and attentions issues first show signs of anxiety. They may notice they can’t do what their friends can do. As they go through grade school, their anxiety may get worse if the skill gap widens between them and their classmates. Kids with anxiety issues may just generally be hard on themselves.
- Anxiety about feeling different: Much of childhood is about fitting in. Children with learning and attention issues may worry that someone will notice if they get extra time on tests. They may fear someone will see them in the resource room. Teenagers may fear the other kids will find out they take medication or see a therapist. Children with social skills issues may want to be part of things but are afraid of being rejected.
- Anxiety about the future: Teens with learning and attention issues may fear what’s after high school. “If I can’t pass a math test, how will I ever take an SAT?” Or they may worry they won’t be able to live away from home. They may avoid dealing with these issues by not taking tests or refusing to talk about their plans after graduation.
When Anxiety Becomes an Issue
When anxiety stops a child from enjoying life, that child may have an “anxiety disorder.” The most common forms of anxiety disorders include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder: Your child may seem “anxious by nature.” She’s worried about anything and everything. She fears someone will see her counting on her fingers. She won’t go in the backyard because there’s a beehive next door. She may have nightmares or trouble sleeping.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): People with OCD often follow unusual routines or rituals. They believe that doing this will stop bad things from happening. For example, your child might wash her hands every time she thinks about something she’s afraid of.
- Panic disorder: Your child is often terrified when there’s no real danger. At these times, she may find her heart beats fast; she has chest pain and difficulty breathing and may feel nausea or even a fear that she’s dying. Your child worries about having another episode and may even change her behavior because she’s so fearful of having another panic attack.
- Separation anxiety disorder: Fear of separating from a parent is a natural part of childhood. It is considered a disorder if your child can’t get past this stage, continues to cling, and can’t separate easily from you at school or elsewhere.
- Social anxiety disorder: Your child may be fearful of social situations. If you force her to go on a playdate or to a party, she may cry or throw a tantrum. She may be very shy around strangers and avoid playing with classmates.
- Phobias: Your child may be extremely afraid of a particular thing, such as bees, the dark, or doctors. Her phobia may prevent her from getting involved in activities and cause her to scream or act out in other ways.
When to Seek Help
When anxiety stops your child from functioning or enjoying life, it’s probably time to find help. Your school psychologist might suggest someone who specializes in helping children with learning and attention issues. The therapist can work with you and your child to manage the anxiety. He may also refer you to a physician if he thinks medication will help.
Children with learning and attention issues have reasons to feel anxious. That doesn’t mean their anxiety can’t be managed. Learn about signs of anxiety and stress so you can identify these feelings in your child. From there you can work with your child and possibly a therapist to keep her worries in check.