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ADHD and Anxiety: What You Need to Know

By Peg Rosen

At a Glance

  • Some of the challenges that come with ADHD can make kids anxious.

  • Many kids with ADHD may have trouble managing emotions.

  • Some kids may have an anxiety disorder as well as ADHD.

Anxiety is common in kids with ADHD. Many of the challenges that come with ADHD can make kids anxious. Kids with ADHD are also more likely to have an anxiety disorder than other kids.

It can be hard to tell whether a child has ADHD or anxiety because there’s so much overlap in how they look in kids. Here’s what you need to know about ADHD and anxiety—and what you can do to help your child.

The ADHD-Anxiety Connection

Kids with ADHD have trouble with executive functions. These are the skills that help us get organized, plan, manage time, and follow daily routines. Struggling with these skills day after day can be stressful. And chronic stress can lead to anxiety.

Kids with ADHD often have more trouble managing stress than kids who don’t have ADHD, too. That’s because ADHD affects how kids manage their emotions. Kids with ADHD may get so flooded with emotion that they have trouble thinking clearly about how to cope with the situation.

So, having ADHD can lead to anxiety. But kids with ADHD are also up to three times more likely to have an anxiety disorder than other kids. Because ADHD and anxiety disorders often occur at the same time, some researchers think kids may be pre-wired to be both anxious and inattentive.

What an Anxious Child With ADHD May Look Like

Trouble managing emotions can affect kids’ behavior in different ways. Some kids act up and draw attention to themselves. Others sit quietly and try not to be noticed.

Here are some behaviors that may be signs of anxiety in a child with ADHD:

  • Clowns around too much in class

  • Seems irritable or argumentative

  • Lies about schoolwork or other responsibilities that haven’t been met

  • Withdraws from people, maybe by retreating to the bedroom or bathroom

  • Plays video games or watches TV nonstop

Why Anxiety Is Sometimes Misdiagnosed as ADHD

Sometimes kids with anxiety can be misdiagnosed with ADHD, or vice versa. That’s because on the surface, the two can look similar. Here are some of the ways kids with either may act—but for different reasons:

  • Have trouble paying attention. Kids with anxiety may seem tuned out or preoccupied, but they are really distracted by worries. Kids with ADHD are inattentive because of differences in the brain that affect focus.

  • Fidget constantly. Kids with anxiety may tap their foot nonstop during class because of nervous energy. Kids with ADHD fidget because of hyperactivity or trouble with impulse control.

  • Work slowly. Kids with anxiety may work slowly because they feel like they have to do something perfectly. Kids with ADHD take a long time to get things done because they have trouble starting tasks and focusing on them.

  • Don’t turn in assignments. Kids with anxiety might get stuck on a task and be too anxious to ask for help. Kids with ADHD often don’t turn in assignments because of poor planning skills and forgetfulness.

  • Struggle to make friends. Kids with social anxiety might be too fearful of social situations to make friends. Kids with ADHD might have trouble  picking up on social cues because they struggle with focus. Or their impulsive behavior might annoy or alienate other kids.

There are lots of overlapping symptoms between ADHD and anxiety. But there are also key differences:

  • Kids with anxiety disorders often show compulsive or perfectionist behavior. This isn’t as common in kids with ADHD.

  • Kids with ADHD tend to struggle with organization. This isn’t as common in kids with anxiety.

  • Kids with anxiety tend to worry more about socializing than kids with ADHD. 

  • Kids with anxiety may also develop physical symptoms like sweaty palms, rapid breathing, and stomachaches.

How You Can Help

Get to know signs of anxiety in younger kids or teens and tweens, and take notes on what you see. Using an anxiety tracker can help you better understand when and why your child feels anxious.

Here are some other ways to help:

  • Tune in to your child’s behavior. Try not to chalk them all up to ADHD. Acting up more than usual or disappearing into video games can be signs of anxiety. Ask if something is causing worry or uneasiness.

  • If your child talks about anxiety, validate those feelings. Rather than telling your child to “calm down,” work together to figure out next steps to take.

  • Be mindful of your own anxiety. Some parents of anxious kids struggle with anxiety themselves. Remember that your child is learning how to respond to stressful situations by watching how you react to them. Kids often have an easier time coping with anxiety if their parents stay calm and positive.

  • Try not to take things personally. It can be upsetting when your child comes home from school and says something rude or offensive. But when kids do this, they’re often letting off steam after a stressful day. When things have calmed down, brainstorm ways to decompress, like offering quiet time before you start asking about school.

  • Help your child see the big picture. If your child blows up when doing math homework, wait for things to calm down. Then encourage your child to reflect on what caused those feelings. Talk about what you both might be able to do next time to relieve some of that anxiety.

  • Consider outside help. If your child’s anxiety gets in the way of functioning or enjoying life, talk to your health care provider. If need be, they can refer you to a mental health professional who can help you and your child find the best path forward.

Keep in mind that getting a thorough evaluation is key to determining if your child has ADHD, an anxiety disorder, or both. This is especially important if you’re considering medication. ADHD medication may relieve anxiety in some kids. But there’s also a chance it may make some kids more anxious. It all depends on how sensitive a particular child’s body is to a particular medication.

Anxiety can be a lifelong reality for some kids with ADHD. But with the right support, kids can manage both ADHD and anxiety, and thrive in school and in life.

Key Takeaways

  • Kids with ADHD are more likely to have anxiety than kids who don’t have ADHD.

  • Sometimes kids with anxiety can be misdiagnosed with ADHD, or vice versa.

  • Keep track of signs of anxiety you see, and reach out to your health care provider if you have concerns.

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  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
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  • Text Message
  • Coming soonGoogle Classroom