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Acting Out and ADHD Anxiety

Was Natalie’s crime an incident of ADHD impulsivity? Or is her anxiety meter registering in the acting-out zone?

The phone rang Friday afternoon. It was Mrs. Carter, Natalie’s special ed teacher. This can’t be good, I thought when I heard her voice. Mrs. Carter and I usually communicate about routine matters via email.

Sure enough, Nat was in trouble. She stole a quarter from another child to buy a pencil from the little vending machine by the office. (Nat has — literally — hundreds of pencils.)

When Natalie was in kindergarten she went through a phase of stealing stuff from the teacher and the other students. She came home with all kinds of junk — small toys, erasers, one alphabet stencil from a set. Nothing of any value — nothing she actually needed. Just junk.

We set up a reward system to deal with it. Mrs. Carter checked Natalie’s pockets and backpack each day before she left school, and I did the same when I picked her up from daycare. If no contraband was discovered, Nat received a reward. The system worked, and within a month or so her crime-spree ended.

I took Nat to a therapist too. I knew how to handle the situation behaviorally, but why was she stealing in the first place?

The therapist theorized that Nat’s actions stemmed from anxiety. Nat’s teacher was pregnant and was missing a lot of school. Nat never knew, from one day to the next, or from morning to afternoon, what teacher would be in her room. Once the teacher had her baby and went on leave, a long-term sub settled in. Nat’s world became predictable again, and so did her behavior.

So, now I’m wondering: was Friday’s crime an isolated act — an incident of ADHD impulsivity? Or was it a sign that Nat’s anxiety meter is registering in the acting-out zone? Is she reacting to the change of routine caused by me quitting work? Is something else going on that I don’t know about?

Nat went to school this morning with a quarter in her pocket, restitution earned by cleaning her room independently. I’ll check with Mrs. Carter to be sure the quarter was delivered, along with an apology, to the victim of Natalie’s crime.

And I’ll keep my eyes, ears — and arms — open for any further signs of distress in my sensitive, anxious, ADHD child.