Clinical anxiety conditions—generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, phobias, panic disorder, and PTSD—are the most common emotional disorders diagnosed in children. The prevalence rate in 2- to 5-year-olds is 9.5% and rises to nearly 32% in 13- to 18 –year-olds. The average age of onset is age 11, and females are 60 times more likely than males to experience an anxiety disorder.
Although anxiety disorders are eminently treatable, 80% of kids with a diagnosable disorder do not receive treatment. Among kids with learning challenges such as ADHD, specific learning disabilities, and sensory processing disorder, anxiety is almost always a co-existing condition, which necessitates explicit and appropriate interventions and treatments.
For parents of kids with learning issues, knowing what to look for—and what to do if you see signs of an anxiety disorder—can prevent issues from becoming long-term problems.
What Are the Signs of Anxiety?
Children show their anxiety in many ways. For example, they may bite or pick at their nails; fidget; change the way they make eye contact; experience stomach aches or headaches; alter their sleep patterns; change their diet or the manner in which they eat; or engage in significant avoidance and escape behaviors. They may regress to former stages of development by wanting to sleep in your bed or room; be unable to perform tasks that were routine for them before; or need more frequent reassurance or contact with parents or caregivers. When this happens, think of your child as having a problem rather than being a problem. That will enable you to address their anxiety in a supportive and appropriate manner.
Is It Over-Stimulation or Under-Stimulation?
Sensory anxiety, the recurring, stubborn anxiety that co-exists with sensory processing disorder, manifests itself differently in each child. After an anxiety crisis and an initial “freeze-response,” they may experience racing thoughts or no thoughts (“all-or-none” thinking), a flushed face, dizziness and disorientation, excessive sweating, shaking, poor balance and coordination, or stomach cramps and vomiting. But, no matter how sensory anxiety reveals itself, it can take quite a toll on your child, adversely affecting physical and mental wellbeing.
Over-stimulated kids feel as if everything is too much: sunlight or room lights are too bright, words too fast and confusing, smells too strong, clothing too tight or scratchy. Some kids may scream when they enter a loud restaurant to try to drown out the noise, cover their ears to help themselves cope, or shut down mentally and emotionally. If unable to self-soothe, they may throw temper tantrums or experience meltdowns.
Under-stimulated kids seek out additional sensory input, often in inappropriate ways. They crave more movement (rocking, jumping, running, spinning, crashing into things, playing rough); more sound; more touch and deep pressure (squeezing themselves in pillows); more oral stimulation (biting pencils, chewing clothing); and more people taking notice of them (moving into other people’s personal space).
To help kids either activate or quiet their sympathetic nervous systems, occupational therapy is key. Occupational therapists can prepare detailed, individualized sensory diets as therapies for school and home.
Physical activity is often a way to calm anxious bodies and clear anxious minds. For example, before starting a task requiring sustained focus, some kids may need to jump on a trampoline, push or pull heavy objects, or do push-ups, jumping jacks, or sit-ups before cooling down with gentle, simple stretches.
Some kids may be able to calm themselves by wearing a weighted vest or using a weighted blanket, drinking thick shakes, sucking on lollipops or lemons, or blowing bubbles. Others may need quiet, uncluttered spaces or sound-blocking headphones to read or do homework. Depending on your child’s sensory needs, carefully structure his time outside of school either to avoid sensory overload or to increase activities that can help him release stored physical energy.
This article is based on Understanding & Addressing Anxiety in Your Child: Methods That Really Work, a presentation given by Liz Driscoll Jorgensen, CADC and Mary Murphy, PhD. Eve Kessler, Esq., a criminal appellate attorney with The Legal Aid Society, in New York City, is a co-founder of SPED*NET Wilton (CT), and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities.