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My Daughter’s Anxiety: Something a Mom Can’t Fix

I can’t stop my daughter’s anxiety at school, but I can come up with strategies to help her cope with its symptoms alongside her ADHD treatment. Here, what worked for us.

As kids pour out of the high school on a scorching hot autumn afternoon, I spotted Lee dragging behind the others, shoulders slumped and looking down. Maybe it’s just the heat, I thought, crossing my fingers. I’d hoped tenth grade would be a new start after a rocky year in ninth grade, but it wasn’t turning out that way. Lee swung her backpack into the car, and slid in beside me.

“Mom, I feel sick. The math teacher gave us too much work and I couldn’t finish. Now it’s become my homework, and I already have too much! Get me home before I throw up.”

I felt my stomach start to knot. Anxiety had come creeping back into our lives since the beginning of this school year, and it wasn’t getting better. Last week, Lee was supposed to complete a writing assignment during computer class. The paper required heavy textbook reading, research, and organization. It was busy work using executive functions, which are usually weak in those with ADHD. When Lee couldn’t do the work, she went into what she called “a brain freeze.” Next, she had a headache, and soon after, nausea cropped up.

I always thought Lee’s biggest challenge in high school would come from ADHD and her learning disabilities. I wasn’t prepared for anxiety to take the lead. Even though she was diagnosed with anxiety in elementary school, I saw it in small doses only during homework time. In middle school, the anxiety got worse when she was bullied for being different, but she seemed to hold strong as she entered ninth grade. It didn’t take her long to figure out that high school was a different ball game, with heightened expectations and demands.

The e-mails started coming in the spring of ninth grade from Lee’s teachers. They expressed concern that she wasn’t participating in class and couldn’t focus. Her grades started to plummet. Getting Lee through a day of school became getting Lee to school. The calls from Lee started. “Mom, I need to come home. I don’t feel good.” And when I picked her up, she complained of feeling dizzy, nauseous, and shortness of breath, all physical manifestations of anxiety.

As I tried to figure out how to help Lee, I learned that a large proportion of girls with ADHD experience a spike in anxiety in adolescence. I met with Lee’s pediatrician, and we were on the same page. We didn’t want to combine anxiety meds with ADHD meds, so we stuck to the alternatives: lavender therapy, long baths, breathing exercises, and stretching. She started therapy for coping skills for when things got tough. We also added an accommodation to her IEP that allowed her to take breaks outside the classroom when she felt anxious.

I kept quiet on the drive home that day and watched Lee decompress. By the time we headed into the driveway, color was coming back into her cheeks, and I knew she’d be OK. Last week, she’d gone to the computer teacher and asked for an extension. He said yes, so I was pretty sure she’d find the courage to speak to the math teacher tomorrow.

My challenge is not looking at her anxiety as something mom can “fix.” It is here to stay for now, and each day will bring new opportunities for Lee to learn to manage it. So I made her a smoothie, gently placed our furry cat in her arms, and sent her into her room to cocoon. She emerged in a couple of hours more relaxed, so we could take those small steps down the road to figure out the next solution.