Seeing and supporting anxiety in our ADHD/ Autistic children

What we expect to see

As a parent, when we think about our child being anxious, we often think of them looking fearful, holding back, clinging to us, perhaps crying, hiding, running away, etc. Whilst these can absolutely be a clear presentation of anxiety, there are other behaviours that we must also understand may signify these feelings.

Anxiety is essentially a fear of something – an environment, a feeling, a way of doing things…, perhaps not even consciously experienced. Anxiety is what we feel when we are fearful of and trying to get away from what is happening in the current moment. Our ADHD/Autistic children often have a more sensitive response to their environment, be that due to sensory needs, struggles with some executive function skills or perhaps other neurodevelopmental differences that create those sensitivities and increased anxiety in that situation.

What we may actually see

This fear is recognised by their brain and nervous system as a threat and so will trigger a change in their body state, as their brain sends messages to their body to react, so as to protect and defend them. The typical responses of the autonomic nervous system are the fight, flight or freeze responses and another stress response that is becoming better understood, the fawn response.

Fight response

When our child’s body tries to fight off the danger, it will be be full of energy, aggressive, loud, angry and attacking. When our child behaves in this way, we can feel very triggered our selves – our nervous system may have a sense of threat and so our body may also react to defend us. It is therefore not easy for us to pause and think about this behaviour as a fear response. We may respond in a way that matches their anger, thereby increasing the threat that they feel.

Flight response

When our child’s body reacts to flee the danger, it will again be full of energy but now doing everything to get away, to escape, to avoid and hide from the threat. This is the behaviour we most associate with fear and anxiety, and so we are then most likely to have some understanding and be able to support our young person, even if for a limited time.

Freeze response

When our child’s body reacts to freeze in order to defend against the danger they feel, they may go into a shutdown mode; with low energy; they may avoid engaging, with little eye contact or speech. They may appear disinterested and even apathetic. As their parents, this again can be triggering to us, as we try to support them, perhaps by wanting to talk things through or suggesting ways that they can tackle the fear and getting little response from them.

Fawn response,

Another way that we may see our child responding, and perhaps the one we are least likely to recognise as stemming from fear and anxiety, is when they show nothing but compliance and agreement; they go along with what those around them want, rather than what they, themselves, need in that moment. This agreeable behaviour is a response from our child to protect themselves from the judgement of others and to avoid conflict in an effort to stay safe.

If we are able to see that all these behaviours may have anxiety and fear as their pre-cursor, then we are able to be much more curious and less judgemental of our child, and find ways to support their needs in that situation, rather than just trying to manage their behaviour.

What we can do to support our child

When we see anger, avoidance, apathy or agreement let’s step back and question what is causing a feeling of threat for our child; what is causing their nervous system to respond automatically, to send messages to change their body, in an attempt to protect themselves. When we better understand what may be behind this behaviour, we give them messages of being seen, heard and accepted for what they are experiencing, and this sends strong cues of safety to their nervous system. This then means that we can support them positively by making changes to try to lessen the anxiety they experience in those environments and situations, which will impact how they react.