How Stress Affects Your ADHD Child

by Anne Windermere Patient Advocate

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.

As Professor Vance stated in the aforementioned study, children with ADHD are going to do anything to control their environment. When you look at it this way, it all makes sense. And behavioral problems are a natural reaction to your child's on-going stress. When your child is acting up it may be good to analyze which stressors or anxiety is fueling this behavior. Show me a kid with behavior problems and most of the time you will be showing me a kid who also suffers from underlying anxiety. The key becomes how to help your child deal with stressors in the environment and lessen anxiety.

Here are some suggestions as to how to lower your child's stress, gleaned from my personal experiences as a special educator and as a parent:

  • Make your child's environment as predictable as you are able to. Things like schedules, posted rules, clear consequences for both appropriate and inappropriate behavior can help your child make sense of his or her world. Anxiety is lessened because they know what to expect.

  • At the same time, you do want to introduce spontaneity and change into your child's routine. You will need to teach your child how to cope with disappointments and the unexpected. Role playing can help with this as well as discussing "if/then" scenarios. You want your child to learn how to go with the flow and adapt to change in his or her environment.

  • Give your child choices in their day-to-day routines so that they feel that they have some control. The choices may be selective as in "Do you want me to read you a story before or after your bath?" Choice can lessen a child's anxiety by giving them a feeling of power over their world. When do we feel the most anxious? When we feel we have no control or say so over what happens to us. This is especially true for children.

  • Develop some sensory integration strategies to help your child deal with any sensory issues that they may have. An occupational therapist can be an excellent resource if you suspect that your child does suffer from sensory integration disorder. In the meantime, make a list of calming techniques and strategies that have worked in the past to help your child de-stress and calm down. For example some children are calmer after swinging, swimming, listening to soothing music, or taking a bath. For more sensory integration ideas please read my post, "A Sensory Integration Approach for Helping Hyperactive Kids." Eileen Bailey also lists some ways to de-stress which may also apply to children in her post, "10 Ways to Relieve Stress in Less than Five Minutes."

If your child suffers from stress and anxiety there is help and support. One resource is Health Central's Anxiety Connection where you can find some familiar faces (myself and Eileen). There you can learn more about stress, anxiety symptoms, and treatments for pediatric anxiety.
Remember that whatever you are going through, that you are not alone. We are here to help and to listen.

If you have any strategies for helping your child to cope with stress and anxiety please share them here. We always love to hear from our members.

Anne Windermere
Meet Our Writer
Anne Windermere

These articles were written by a longtime HealthCentral community member who shared valuable insights from her experience living with multiple chronic health conditions. She used the pen name "Merely Me."