15 often-missed signs your child suffers from anxiety, not ADHD

Only two out of the dozens of ADD/ADHD students who came to our school actually had Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. But how is such a widespread misdiagnosis possible?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is calling for action as the number of children who use drugs or alcohol or commit suicide is frighteningly increasing.  The CDC is appealing to parents, educators, and health care professionals to be aware of emotional disabilities in children.

Here are the latest statics for children ages 3 to 17:

  • ADHD (6.8%)
  • Behavioral or conduct problems (3.5%)
  • Anxiety (3.0%)
  • Depression (2.1%)
  • Autism spectrum disorders (1.1%)
  • Tourette syndrome (0.2% among children aged 6–17 years)

The most recent mental health surveillance report shares that boys ages 12 to 17 were more likely than girls to die by suicide. Adolescent girls were more likely than boys to have depression or an alcohol use disorder.

Are the statistics correct?

As the CDC emphasizes, the above percentages are based on parent interviews. Researchers conduct the interviews via phone and actually never meet a child.

Based on our decades of experience with ADD or ADHD children, the above statistics would look very different if researchers actually met a child, or parents had an increased awareness of the symptoms of emotional disabilities like anxiety.

The 15 most-often missed signs of anxiety in children:

1. Your child has trouble sleeping 

A change in your child’s sleeping pattern is often the first indicator that something is amiss. Feeling anxious and worried about something might prevent your child from falling asleep.

If trouble falling asleep happens after a scary movie or a too exciting day, there is an explanation. However, if there is no apparent reason why a child cannot fall asleep, parents might want to explore if the child is feeling anxious.

2. Your child sleeps too much

When a child experiences intense feelings during the day, it might need more sleep during the night or during the day. Unlike most adults, children are not always able to vocalize their anxiety. Sleep is a great way to escape.

Sleeping not enough or too much occasionally is one situation. However, if the pattern persists, parents might want to assess their child’s emotional state.

3. Your child wakes up frequently during the night

Waking up during the night because of nightmares or because of a bathroom visit is not unusual in children. If it happens too often though, there might be underlying causes for the interrupted sleep.

A sudden onset of bedwetting in younger children can mean that a child experienced an anxiety-provoking event. It can also be a warning sign of PANDAS or PANS.

4. Your child has to go to the bathroom often

Like sleeping patterns, bathroom habits can mirror a child’s emotional state. A child experiencing anxiety might use the restroom more frequently.

Dream symbols use any kind of water as a reflection of a person’s emotional state. For children, bathroom habits are very similar.

A child who is unable to find a release for its anxiety through the conscious mind might “release” those feelings in the bathroom.

Alice Anne Parker is providing a dictionary-like listing of 2,500 dream images and how to interpret them. Her topic on water covers 20 different images from mist to tidal waves.

Children who are unable to express themselves verbally might be able to express themselves in their drawings.


5. Your child experiences diarrhea or constipation

Signs of anxiety in children can include diarrhea or constipation. Infrequent bouts of trouble with bowel movements can occur in children. If it happens frequently, though, and cannot be attributed to a child’s diet, it is time to notice.

In cases of social anxiety, some children might visit the bathroom more frequently and stay there as long as possible. It is one method to get away from everyone.

6. Your child does not want to go to school

There are many reasons why a child does not want to go to school. If the refusal is caused by test anxiety or social anxiety, your child might need your support.

A child who can complain openly about what is happening at school is dealing with the situation. A child who internalizes the challenges accompanying school life (including possible bullying) is in danger of developing serious anxiety symptoms.

7. Your child’s grades drop

A change in a child’s academic performance is reason enough to investigate. Different teachers, different peers, or a different classroom environment can cause grade changes.

Sometimes grade changes can be temporary and can be remedied with a tutor or a teacher-parent conference. If the drop in grades persists, parents might want to check if an emotional issue is the underlying cause.

8. Your child has trouble focusing in school

A true ADD or ADHD child has most likely always experienced difficulties focusing in school. A child who once enjoyed school and later began having trouble with attention is more likely to suffer from an emotional disability.

Emotional disabilities, especially anxiety, are a powerful force.  When a child is dealing with challenging emotions, being able to focus in the classroom is nearly impossible.

The Limbic System

Emotional life is largely housed in the brain’s limbic system. The limbic system supports numerous functions like emotions, behaviors, motivation, memory, and olfaction (sense of smell). Especially the hippocampus has been found to have a huge impact in learning. Blausen.com staff (2014). “Medical gallery of Blausen Medical 2014”

9. Your child forgets things

Children with anxiety often forget what someone tells them to do. They also forget where they placed an item or to bring something to school.

Even if your child is trying really hard to follow your instructions, listening requires a lot of energy. Anxiety can truly “suck” the energy from your child.   

10. Your child daydreams

Children who are overwhelmed with emotions often escape into daydreams. While positive emotions provide energy, negative emotions drain a child.

While daydreaming, a child might not pay attention. It is not uncommon for a child to not hear you at all when it is emotionally preoccupied.

11. Your child is restless, fidgety

Positive or negative emotions are often accompanied by a tremendous energy. When a child cannot or does not want to express his or her feelings, the emotional energy has to express itself somehow.

Mentally, emotional energy prevents the child from being able to focus. Physically, on the other hand, the child is agitated and squirmy.


12. Your child is impatient

Impatience, along with the inability to focus, forgetting things, and being restless, is one of the major characteristics that often leads to a diagnosis of ADD or ADHD in children.

However, a child might be impatient due to strong feelings of anxiety. Getting something quickly can mean temporary relieve from stress. The sooner a child gets what it wants, the better it will feel – for a short time at least.

13. Your child hurts himself

Anxiety in older children can lead to serious self-harm.  Trichotillomania (hair pulling from scalp, eyebrows, or other areas of the body) can be one sign indicating anxiety. Excoriation (skin picking) is another indicator.

In younger children, frequent accidents can be a sign that the child is experiencing anxiety.  In both cases, parents are advised to share the incidents with a health care professional.

14. Your child gets angry easily  

If your child seems to get angry for no apparent reason, anxiety can be the underlying cause. The same applies to a child who gets angry too quickly.

Anxiety turned inward can result in self-harm. Anxiety turned outward can manifest itself in anger outbursts, hostility, and defiance.

15. Your child complains of headaches, muscle aches, or stomach pains   

Anxiety in children can express itself as physical pains. If a child complains of pains and then comes down with a sickness, there is an explanation.

However, if a child mainly complains of pain in specific situations (before going to school, before having to do something that might cause anxiety), parents might want to notice those instances.

What causes anxiety in children?

Anxiety in children can be caused by a genetic predisposition, brain chemistry, or life events. Some of those events might have occurred at a time that a child does not remember.

Research has shown that children who were frequently hospitalized during childhood can be prone to anxiety. Near-death experiences can make a child highly sensitive and result in feelings of alienation.

Since some parents might be unfamiliar with the signs of near-death experiences in children, we are including a list.

Symptoms of near-death experiences in children: 

  • Altered biological patterns, such as amount of sleep, attentiveness, etc.
  • Increased interest in universal love rather than love of specific people
  • A lessening of the parent/child bonding.  The NDEr may be less demonstrative of feelings in the family.
  • Increased sensitivity to others’ feelings
  • Distress from news reports and violence on TV and in movies
  • Increased interest in being of service to others
  • Increased interest in spirituality (even at a young age)
  • Develop a hunger for knowledge and anything philosophical which often leads to unusual choices of reading material for their age
  • Often appears much more mature than other children of the same age
  • Difficulty relating to children of their own age (leading to social anxiety)
  • Communication with spirits, often labeled by children as angels or guides, and by parents as imaginary friends
  • Increased sensitivity to medications, bright light, and loud noises
  • A strong desire to volunteer for charitable causes.

What parents can do

In contrast to adults, who often can verbalize their anxiety, it is much harder for some children to communicate their feelings. Dr. Laurie E. Zelinger and her son have published a child-oriented illustrated book that helps children understand and communicate anxiety better.

Dr. Ronald Rapee, Dr. Ann Wignall, Dr. Susan Spence, Dr. Heidi Lyneham, and Dr. Vanessa Cobham have written an excellent book offering parents effective skills on how to help a child overcome intense fears or worries.

It is crucial for parents and educators to be aware that the symptoms of ADD or ADHD might truly be signs of anxiety in children. Ritalin or classroom behavior modifications do very little for children with anxiety.


If you are looking for some ideas, we highly recommend the following books: