In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month I am going to discuss how stress can affect your child with ADHD. We know that ADHD can have many co-morbid conditions, including anxiety. In fact it is estimated that one-fourth of people with ADHD also suffer from some type of anxiety disorder. Included in this population are children. I am going to present some research but also tell you about my firsthand experience as a parent of witnessing how stress affects my child and his behaviors. I can give you some suggestions about how to help your child better cope with stress and anxiety.
In telling you that stress can have an adverse affect on your child with ADHD, you may probably respond with, “Tell me something I don’t already know.” We parents get to see the behaviors which manifest from stress including oppositional behaviors, negativity, and meltdowns. But did you know that there may be a biological reason why our kids are less able to cope with stress than children who do not have ADHD?
In a 2007 study researchers at the Melbourne Royal Children’s Hospital took a look at the brain scans of 24 ADHD children with hyperactivity and found dysfunction in the region of their brain called the right parietal lobe. This is a part of the brain responsible for our ability to develop coping strategies in response to stress. The lead researcher of this study, Professor Alasdair Vance, noted that children with ADHD have a decreased ability to cope with stressors and will react by doing anything to feel in control of their situation. This may result in negative and oppositional ways of relating and interacting in order to simplify their environment. This dysfunction in the brain wiring may be the source for much of the hyperactive, anxious and even aggressive behavior we may see with children who have ADHD. (This study was reported in the journal, Molecular Psychiatry.)
As a former developmental therapist and special education teacher and now as the parent of my own child with special needs, I am going to add an additional reason why kids with ADHD have limited resources to deal with stress. It is my belief that a lot of kids with ADHD or autism spectrum disorders also have what is known as Sensory Integration Disorder or SID. This means that the child is not able to process and regulate incoming sensory stimuli in the way most people do. Think about the senses and what would happen if you were overly sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, touch, tastes and even motion. Noises that may be harmless for us may be painful to the child with sensory integration disorder. Some children may cry or react to wearing clothing with tags or seams because they are overly sensitive to certain tactile stimuli. Other children with sensory integration disorder may be under-sensitive to sensory input and may seek out loud noises, crave constant motion or even bump into people to get a sense of their body in space. The main thing I want you to understand is that a child with this type of disorder is going to encounter much stress as they go about their day attempting to regulate all this incoming sensory stimuli.