The top mental health problem in America isn't hyperactivity or depression or OCD: it's anxiety, with anxiety disorder afflicting an estimated 13 percent of children and teens. Cognitive behavior therapy, which in part helps kids visualize ways to gain control over their worries and understand how scary thoughts form, is effective 70 to 80 percent of the time.
If your child seems to worry too much about new routines and experiences, sometimes seems tired and irritable, or sometimes seems to zone out, she may have anxiety disorder. Children with sensory integration disorder may appear more anxious or withdrawn than other children, but their anxiety is tied to their inefficient sensory systems rather than a generalized feeling of worry.
Looking at lists of symptoms for neurological or psychiatric disorders can put any parent into a panic. Many children exhibit a few of the behaviors indicated, whether the diagnosis truly applies to them or not. But individual behaviors can have any number of causes and interpretations. Always look at the big picture, the whole child, before rushing to worry.
Making an Anxiety Disorder Diagnosis
To make a diagnosis of anxiety disorder, a mental health professional will talk to the child and the parents and use DSM guidelines to identify certain patterns of behavior. An anxiety disorder is indicated when a child frequently does the following:
Worries excessively about things going on in her life
Can't stop worrying if she tries
Feels restless or on edge
Easily loses her train of thought
Is cranky or tense
Has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
The mental health professional would look to see that there is not another mental disorder causing the anxiety, the anxiety is distressing to the child and interfering with normal life, and there is no medical condition or medication causing the problem.
The Sensory Integration Difference
If your child has sensory integration problems that make her feel physically uncomfortable, or if she has developed routines she can follow to avoid feeling that way, her behavior may resemble anxiety disorder.
In reference to the criteria for anxiety disorder, it may appear that she does the following:
Worries excessively about things going on in her life if she spends a lot of time thinking about how she can avoid distressing situations
Can't stop worrying if she tries if no one understands what her concerns are
Feels restless or on edge if she is understimulated and needs to move to stay alert
Tires easily if she is understimulated and has trouble staying alert
Easily loses her train of thought if she is distracted by unwanted sensations
Is cranky or tense if she is not able to avoid uncomfortable sensations
Has trouble falling asleep or staying asleep if she needs a lot of proprioceptive input, as from rocking, to comfort herself
When you start to understand what causes discomfort for your child with sensory integration disorder and what she needs to do to regulate her sensory system — and start taking some of the responsibility for helping your child do that — the behaviors that mimic anxiety disorder should go away.