"Behaviors Are Messages; They Are Not Diagnoses"

Why your child's inattentive or hyperactive symptoms may actually be symptoms of anxiety. Or why her worry and trouble sleeping may point to ADHD. And how to ensure an accurate diagnosis.

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Anxiety: The Cause or Effect?

Stress and anxiety are a normal part of life for children and adults. Moderate anxiety helps children push themselves to succeed at home, with peers, and in school.

It is normal to be anxious when taking a test or performing in the school play. We expect children and adolescents to be nervous at the doctor’s or dentist’s office or when faced with a new situation. When the level of anxiety is greater than expected, we suspect that there is an anxiety disorder.

Yet merely ticking off prominent symptoms can lead parents and professionals down the wrong path. Anxiety may cause restlessness that can be interpreted as hyperactivity. Or it may bring worries or concerns that cause a child to be inattentive. As anxiety levels increase, the child may appear to be acting quickly or irrationally in order to minimize stress. A parent might label him as impulsive. A superficial assessment might suggest that the child has ADHD, when he really has an anxiety disorder.

An accurate diagnosis is critical to developing an appropriate treatment plan. A doctor or professional should determine whether the anxiety is primary or secondary.

If a child has had difficulty regulating stress and anxiety since early childhood, and his anxiety is pervasive, it is primary. If one or both parents remember being anxious in early childhood, or they still are, a diagnosis of anxiety is almost certain. Anxiety disorders are often genetic.

On the other hand, an anxiety disorder may be secondary to difficulties experienced by a child who has ADHD or a learning disability. Secondary anxiety occurs in certain circumstances.

Monica became anxious over anything related to school. Her anxiety disappeared on weekends. Some children become anxious after they experience a stressful event, such as moving to a new city or their parents going through a divorce. With secondary anxiety, there is no family history of the disorder.

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TAGS: ADHD and Anxiety, Stress, Comorbid Conditions with ADD, Depression

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