Anxiety Versus ADHD in Children

What's the Difference Between Anxiety and ADHD?

Anxiety Versus ADHD in Children

When your child is inattentive and easily distracted, you may assume they have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). And they might, but anxiety often shows up in children in similar ways. While children with ADHD can be unfocused and inattentive because of differences in their brains, children with anxiety may show similar symptoms because they are distracted by worry and/or filled with nervous energy.

Learning the symptoms of each can help you tell the difference.

Signs of Anxiety Include:

  • Physical symptoms: stomachache, headache, muscle tension, sudden bursts of energy, sweating, and restlessness. Children with anxiety often are fidgety and have trouble sitting still.
  • Emotional symptoms: irritability, nervousness, crying, feelings of being overwhelmed, easily set off, and dread.
  • Cognitive symptoms: lack of concentration, worrying, looking ahead constantly, over-thinking things or getting caught up in the details of something, forgetting, easily embarrassed, repetitive thoughts, and rigid expectations of how things should go.
  • Behavioral symptoms: avoidance of stress or social interaction, repetitive behaviors (handwashing; checking and rechecking to make sure they didn’t miss something), organizing objects, and hoarding. They often have a “freeze” response when overwhelmed and the anxiety sabotages their goal achievement due to fears of success or failure.

For more information to help understand anxiety in a loved one, read our in-depth article on What Anxiety Feels Like.

Signs of ADHD Include:

  • Inability to focus
  • Inattention to details
  • Easily distracted
  • Doesn’t seem to listen or follow directions
  • Lacks organization
  • Loses things
  • Forgetful
  • Hyperactivity: can’t sit, constantly on the go, talks excessively, blurts out comments, can’t wait for things, interrupts or intrudes during social interaction, does things quickly, doesn’t think through things or consider consequences (“snap judgment”).

Learn more about ADHD in our in-depth ADHD Parent Guide.

ADHD vs. Anxiety: Commonalities and Differences

Anxiety and ADHD share overlapping symptoms, including inattention/poor concentration, forgetfulness or poor memory functioning, restlessness, and fidgeting. It is, of course, important to know your child and recognize these symptoms.
There are also important distinctions between ADHD and anxiety that can help in differentiating between the two for your child. These include:

  • Disorganized (ADHD) vs. being unnecessarily organized or perfectionistic (Anxiety)
  • Impulsive and not thinking enough (ADHD) vs. thinking ahead too much about the future (Anxiety)
  • Impulsive behaviorally (ADHD) vs. behaviorally inhibited and fearful (Anxiety).

By monitoring your child’s behaviors over time, you may be able to tell the difference between ADHD and anxiety. Even more importantly, monitoring and tracking symptoms will help you to know your child better so you can share their symptoms with a professional. While some of the presenting symptoms are similar, the treatment is different for each condition.

Psychological testing is effective in differentiating these symptoms and determining whether your child has ADHD, anxiety, or both. With an accurate diagnosis, a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist can help provide the appropriate treatment so your child can begin to focus and function appropriately at home, in school, and in the community.

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For additional support, visit our Mental Health Resources page for a comprehensive guide to resources and information for parents, children, teens, and adults.

Jessie Mertz, LCSW

Jessie is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who provides therapy for children and adolescents. She believes that change and growth come from positive relationships and new experiences. Jessie specializes in treating people who suffer from trauma, attachment concerns, adjustment issues, anxiety, depression, and autism. She received her master’s degree in Social Work from the University of North Dakota, and a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology from Bethel University. Jessie is a Registered Play Therapist through the Association for Play Therapy. Aside from being a therapist, Jessie is a wife, mother, runner, reader, and lover of chocolate and coffee.

Dakota Family Services is a highly trusted and respected outpatient clinic providing psychology, psychiatry, and therapy in North Dakota. Our community of compassionate mental health professionals help children, adolescents, and adults improve their overall mental health and well-being through a personalized approach, trusted expertise, and unconditional presence. We offer in-office counseling in Fargo and Minot and online therapy for those who prefer to meet from the comfort of their own home. To schedule an appointment, or to learn more, call 800-201-6495.