Generalised anxiety disorders in children appear to be becoming more common in our children today, and it is important for us to understand what it is and how it differs from as well as relates to sensory processing disorders.
When a child has a generalised anxiety disorder, it causes them to worry almost every day over lots of different things that may be perceived as big or small. This can also include things that parents wouldn’t expect their children to worry over, so can be difficulty to understand.
Children with generalised anxiety disorder struggle to concentrate in school due to the constant fears that are playing on their minds. They tend to keep these worries to themselves as they are unable to express how they are feeling, resulting in refusals to participate in tasks, frustration at their environment, and difficulties with emotional control. It can cause a child to become withdrawn from certain situations, and can sometimes present as a child wilfully disobeying an instruction from a parent or teacher as a result of a fear of not being able to perform the task. Work pace can become slow, and in some instances, children may become tearful or aggressive as a result of their frustration.
When looking at sensory processing difficulties, a child who is sensitive to sensory input may avoid tasks that involve this input, such as not going on the swings if they are afraid of movement. They may refuse to participate in a task if it involves a sensation they do not like, such as baking if they do not like sticky textures on their hands. In an attempt to regulate themselves, a child may also seem to lash out if they are trying to calm themselves down, such as pushing peers on the playground.
On the other hand, if a child is not sensitive to sensory input, but rather seeking this input, they may also be seen as being disruptive in class, may struggle to sit still, and may have difficulties with concentrating and completing their school work. Some of these symptoms are therefore similar to that of generalised anxiety disorder.
Unlike comparing ADD to sensory processing issues, comparing anxiety to sensory processing difficulties can become complicated as certain sensory processing difficulties can lead to anxiety; however, a child with anxiety does not necessarily have sensory processing difficulties. It is therefore important to try to determine the underlying cause of the anxiety, as dealing with difficulties with sensory processing could, in some cases, alleviate feelings of anxiety in the child.
Let’s take a look at this idea together. If a child is sensory sensitive, this means that they are only able to take in small amounts of sensory input before they feel overwhelmed. When this happens, this could cause the child to enter into a fight or flight response. This response is the same response that we experience when we come across something we perceive as threatening in our environment, and it prepares our body to react to whatever it is that is threatening us. Sometimes children enter into this fight or flight state when they have been exposed to too much sensory input, such as a child who is sensitive to touch being exposed to finger paints at school, or a child who struggles to regulate auditory input sitting in a loud classroom, or trying to play in a loud playground. This fight or flight response can cause the release of adrenaline, and too much adrenaline in our systems for a prolonged period of time can have a negative effect on the child.
A child who is sensitive to sensory input may also be anxious of being exposed to an input, even if that input is not yet being placed on them. Think of a child who is about to go to a birthday party, and who knows that the environment is going to be loud with lots of children bumping into them and entering their personal space.
Children who are in fight or flight can respond in different ways. On one hand, they can become agitated, can cry and become clingy to their parents, or can become aggressive and lash out. On the other hand, they may become withdrawn, may try to retreat to a quiet place away from people, or may become tired quickly and want to sleep. Often, children in fight or flight struggle to concentrate, preventing them from taking in new information or remembering new tasks that they have learnt. This therefore has a negative influence on their memory.
If a child is experiencing anxiety as a result of a sensory processing disorder, it is important for an occupational therapist to assist the child in being able to cope with the different sensory inputs by slowly exposing them to the inputs they find threatening in a safe environment. This allows them to tolerate higher levels of input and therefore decreases levels of stress around the different sensory inputs within their environment. If a child is experiencing generalised anxiety disorder not as a result of sensory difficulties, a cognitive behavioural approach can be taken by a psychologist or play therapist.
Determining the difference between a child with generalised anxiety and a sensory processing difficulty is best done by an occupational therapist who understands the different sensory systems so that she can analyse the systems of the child and determine if there are sensitivities to a system that may be causing the child distress.
As a parent, if you are worried that your child may be anxious, be it from general anxiety or a sensory processing disorder, the best thing you can do is to be patient with your child and offer them encouragement. Adjusting a discipline strategy from shouting to speaking a wrong doing through with your child may also alleviate anxiety so that they can understand what it is that was done wrong in a calm manner, without tipping them into a fight or flight response. It is also important to get the child to a professional who will be able to help them with their anxiety, getting to the root of the cause and giving them techniques to cope with their anxiety in a way that is relevant to them.
We hope that this article sheds some light on anxiety in children, as well as how a sensory processing disorder may influence anxiety within a child.