Worried and Watchful: 7 Strategies for Helping Neurodivergent Kids Manage Anxiety

A graphic of 4 illustrated kids managing anxiety, sitting on the ground and looking upset inside gray bubbles Most kids and adults just want their anxiety to go away NOW. As parents, we try to anticipate and cope with the fear of our child or teen by trying to protect them from the pain. I don’t know about you, but this rarely worked in my family because the worries just came back. Instead, anxiety needs to be addressed head on. We have to teach our kids tools to cope with their own worries. Helping kids learn to manage anxiety will help them feel empowered and confident to take risks and meet unforeseen challenges.

Anxiety relief – beyond reassurance

Anxiety loves reassurance because it offers short-term relief from discomfort. However, telling kids that everything will be okay, or not to worry, only increases long-term anxiety. These reassurances don’t work because you are not teaching the necessary coping skills your child or teen actually needs. Instead, everybody benefits when you take a different approach. Although it’s more useful to acknowledge their fears, validate their concerns, and brainstorm solutions–together, let’s face it–this can be a tougher road to travel.  

Neurodivergent kids: From anxious to resilient

Unlike nervousness, which goes away once a skill has been mastered, anxiety can take over a child or teen’s life. Worry differs from anxiety. Worry refers to how we think about something. Anxiety is a physiological response based on negative thoughts and distorted beliefs. We cannot eliminate anxiety; it’s a natural human response that’s evolved for survival. It thrives in the petri dish of natural child development and also in a culture that is obsessed with comparisons and instant gratification.

Without useful self-management strategies, and unable to access the internal resources they need, anxious kids can freak out and refuse to do anything. However, they can learn to talk back to worried, negative thoughts. They can also practice relying on past successes for confident choices in the present. These strategies will help them learn how to tolerate the discomfort of not knowing. They can also learn to accept the possibility of disappointment. This is how neurodivergent youngsters develop the resilience that’s crucial for becoming a competent, successful adult.

How ADHD and anxiety differ and relate

Sad and anxious preteen walking alone outside, wiping a tear from her eye

Despite misdiagnoses, ADHD differs significantly from anxiety. While kids with ADHD wrestle with organization, working memory challenges and impulse control, kids with anxiety struggle with compulsive, obsessive or perfectionistic behaviors, psychosomatic ailments and debilitating specific phobias. Issues related to food, housing or job insecurity, systemic racism or trauma further intensify anxiety.

According to the CDC, approximately 7.1% of children aged 3-17 years old currently have an anxiety diagnosis. But, for 34% kids with ADHD, anxiety is often a frequent companion. Neurological patterns and executive functioning challenges make it harder for kids to manage big feelings. Plus, neurodivergent youngsters often miss visual or auditory cues or misread facial expressions. These challenges can foster social anxiety and social discomfort. Concerns about ‘messing up again’ amp up into persistent worry about the next time that they will (unwittingly) make a mistake, say an unexpected comment or forget something important.

How to respond to your kid’s worries

Anxiety is a shape-shifter. Just when you think you’ve figured out how to deal with one issue, another one pops up. It’s like playing Whack A Mole. To avoid this frustration, you’ve got to step back. See how your youngster’s anxiety operates, and don’t react to the content.

Young boy looking upset as his father sits next to him, trying to help him feel better

It’s the reaction to the worry–not getting rid of it–that makes the difference. Dismissing concerns (“This isn’t that big of a deal. You’ll be fine.”) doesn’t honor the reality of their worry. It will grow. Reassurance (“Don’t worry, everything will work out.”) also doesn’t provide a lasting solution. That’s because your teen learns to rely on other people making things okay for them, even though no one really can.

Instead, validate their concern by saying, “You’re right to be scared. You’re not sure you can handle that. It’s natural to worry in that situation. What else could you say to yourself?” This lets them know that you heard their worry and acknowledge that it’s real, while simultaneously guiding them towards managing it. Practical tools for helping kids manage their own anxiety is what works best to reduce it. Here are 7 strategies to try.

7 Strategies to help neurodivergent kids manage their anxiety

1. Manage your own concerns first

Kids have incredible radar. They easily pick up when their parents are stressed or anxious, and it increases their own distress–consciously or unconsciously. The first step to helps kids manage their anxiety is to lower your own anxiety. Discuss your concerns with your partner, a friend, extended family member or counselor. Write these down, and then strategize responses or to-do action items for each by creating an Anxiety Decelerator Plan. This ADP will help you feel like you have some control. For instance, if your child needs more academic support, you can contact the school to set up a meeting.

2. Identify their worries

We can’t assist kids in turning down the frequency or intensity of their anxiety unless we know what’s causing it. Worried thinking and environmental triggers can set off children and teens. We want to stop this tumble. During your weekly or twice a week check-in meetings (these are a must), explore what might be uncomfortable or uncertain for them. Write these down. Pick one fear together to address first. When its volume is lower, you can pick another. Remember, people can really only change one thing at a time. 

3. Change the relationship to anxiety

Think like Sherlock Holmes, and investigate anxiety like a puzzle. When, where and how does it show up? What are its triggers? Brainstorm with your teen what to say when worry arrives: “Hmm, that sounds like worry. What could you say to size it down?” In addition, separate anxiety from who your teen is. Many kids feel powerless about anxiety and benefit from redefining it as something distinct from who they are.

4. Stay neutral and compassionate without fixing

Father and daughter making pancakes together and smilingMost of the time, your teen needs your support in thinking through responses to tricky situations, but not solving them. (Of course, there will be situations when you must intervene, such as cases of bullying, violence, academic failure or risky behaviors.) Kids of anxious parents are more likely to be anxious themselves. Monitor your reactions about your child’s anxiety, and refrain from discussing your concerns in public. React neutrally, regardless of their irritating, frustrating and sometimes scary behaviors. These behaviors are demonstrating how out of control your child or teen feels inside, which is why anxiety exists in the first place.

5. Start small to build confidence

Anxiety is great at erasing memories of past successes, which is compounded for kids with ADHD and their working memory challenges. Choose a goal that’s within reach, and work on taking a small step first. What would your teen want to do if anxiety wasn’t there? Help them recall times when they took a risk and succeeded. Then, discuss how those strategies can apply to this situation. Offer them language: “I’m willing to feel unsure. I can grab onto my courage and try this.” This helps calm the anxious brain. 

6. Opt for curiosity over anxiety

It’s tough to stand in uncertainty, and, frankly, adolescence is filled with unknowns. Kids often feel a distinct lack of control in their lives, which fuels their anxiety. Instead of worried thoughts, though, you can assist kids to shift to curiosity. Where anxiety shuts youngsters down and predicts negative outcomes, curiosity opens them up to possibilities. Help kids manage their own anxiety by working with them to say: “I wonder about…” rather than “I’m worried about…”

7. Focus on building resilience

Resilience is the antidote to anxiety. When your kids identify strengths and people who care about them, and develop interests, they feel more confident. Find ways to connect on things that matter to them, like a favorite computer game or a funny YouTube video. Nurturing this connection will improve their willingness to work with you in tackling anxiety.

Teenage girl standing in front of a brick wall holding up a skateboard

Read more blog posts:

Watch on YouTube:

Upcoming Live Webinar with Dr. Saline:

Live ADHD Webinar and Q&A with Dr. Sharon Saline: "Beyond High School Graduation: How to Help Neurodivergent Teens Prepare for Their Next Chapter" / Wednesday, May 11, 2022, 7:15-8:45pm EDT.

“Beyond High School Graduation: How to help neurodivergent teens prepare for their next chapter”

Wednesday, May 11, 2022, 7:15-8:45pm EDT

Learn more and register here!


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, March 4). Data and statistics on children’s Mental Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved May 11, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/data.html.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, September 23). Data and Statistics About ADHD. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved May 11, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/data.html.