How to Transform Anxiety in Kids with ADHD to Excitement

Teen kid with ADHD having anxiety and looking nervous in front of a bright purple backgroundDo you ever notice how your heart races in similar ways when you’re anxious and when you’re excited? The energy courses through your body and brain, and you feel a type of exhilaration. Of course, it’s more negative for anxiety and more positive for excitement. In both cases, however, our adrenaline is activated because anxiety and excitement really are like two sides of the same coin. Managing both types of these intense, overwhelming reactions is especially taxing for kids with ADHD due to their challenges with impulse control and emotional regulation. How can you help transform anxiety in kids with ADHD into eager anticipation?

The human brain is wired for negative expectancy.

Negative expectancy has helped us survive for centuries, whether it’s avoiding tigers in the jungle or mastering the art of riding a bicycle. We make mistakes or encounter challenges and learn to adapt, accommodate and overcome. This ability to persist and bounce back is the antidote to anxiety and the foundation of excitement. Anxiety weakens confidence and courage by feeding doubt. Kids don’t believe that things will work out. Based on previous struggles, they expect the worst.

Excitement reflects optimism–hope that something good is going to happen.

Kids are excited for things they look forward to, believe they will enjoy or think they can accomplish. Nervousness can be a precursor to excitement: once a child or teen has learned the skill associated with a new task or situation, they shift from insecurity to anticipation.

With a history of impulsive or distracted behaviors, school difficulties and social challenges, many of your sons and daughters are afraid to hold a positive outlook when faced with something unexpected or different. They’re insecure that they possess the coping skills to successfully meet the novel demands they encounter. They need you to remind them of previous situations when they took a chance, stuck with something hard and succeeded. Working memory challenges for the ADHD brain make this recall particularly difficult in the face of strong negative emotions. 

While many fears justify anxiety in kids with ADHD, others may not.

Sometimes it’s a simple act of changing the language that we use to describe our experiences that encourages an alternative perspective. This may sound trite, but our narratives really frame our actions and outlooks. We want to help kids with ADHD shift away from anxiety that globalizes fear and uncertainty. Instead, we want to move them towards a framework of improving inadequate skills. This fosters a growth mindset and helps them pivot towards excitement.

Help kids with ADHD identify feelings of anxiety

What would it be like to assist your child in noticing the energy they are feeling when they feel nervous or worried? Observe what you see happening with neutral statements like “I see that your voice is getting louder and your face is flushed. Tell me about your concerns.” In addition, ask them about the flip side of the anxiety: “What would it be like if you were excited instead of afraid? What is something you could do differently or what other options can we discuss that might make this situation turn out better than expected?” Every small win, every small shift to a positive perception, is a success.

As we embrace 2021, following a year of many challenges and much anxiety, I encourage you to commit your family to take a small step towards a new perspective. When someone expresses worry about something where a pivot is possible, investigate the energy, name it and see what happens. Standing at this crossroads, travel down the path of excitement for an alternative.

Happy kids with ADHD showing an exciting, accomplished gesture with her arms

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