This month’s column comes directly by request from a pediatric colleague. She asked about a common diagnostic dilemma for pediatricians that involves what at least on the surface appears like disruptive or oppositional behavior at the home, school, or both, but is complicated by the possibility that the primary engine of this behavior is anxiety. This is an important challenge to try and get right because the treatment plan will take different paths, depending on the final call that is made.
Devin is a 6-year-old boy who comes in with his parents for concerns about his behavior. His parents note that he has always been “high strung” but not disruptive or aggressive. When he was younger, Devin was quite sensitive to sounds, textures, and tactile sensations, but this has improved on its own. Thunderstorms continue to bother him quite a bit, though, and he often will ask his parents repeated questions when it is cloudy about the possibility of a thunderstorm. With some extra teacher and parent support, Devin made the transition to kindergarten fairly well. Now, however, he is struggling in a larger 1st grade class. His teacher states that he often seems distracted, fidgety, and easily frustrated, causing him to “shut down” and refuse to do his work. This past week, during a more challenging assignment, he crawled under his desk and would not come out. The teacher is now recommending an evaluation for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
1. Are there other times in the child’s life when clearly he is very anxious? The presence of developmentally elevated levels of anxiety in areas outside the particular situations in question can provide a clue that anxiety is contributing to what otherwise might be seen as more oppositional behavior. In this case, the high levels of anxiety about thunderstorms show that anxiety is present in the child and could be playing a role in his disruptive behavior at school.
2. When he’s not focusing on the task at hand, what is he thinking about? Nonanxious children with or without ADHD can frequently daydream and go “off task,” but the content of those thoughts frequently involves anticipation for more preferred activities, reminisces of positive events from the past, or attention to other stimuli in the environment (for example, the bird in a tree outside). More anxious children, by contrast, may have more worried and ruminating thoughts about poor performance, possible bad events that might happen in the future, or “what if?” kinds of concerns.
3. Is there a family history of anxiety? While one should not over-rely on family history, the presence of one or more family members with clinically significant anxiety does raise the possibility of anxiety in the identified patient. Research indicates that the heritability of anxiety is about 50%,1,2 but that a significant amount of the transmission of anxiety from parent to child comes from environmental mechanisms.3
4. Is there a consistent trigger to his outbursts? For anxious children, meltdowns are frequently provoked by situations in which a child feels uncomfortable, overstimulated, or overwhelmed, and the outburst is a reflection of those intense feelings that are difficult to manage. An outburst like that above, which occurs when a child is pushed to finish difficult work, might be a good example of one that is triggered by anxiety.
5. What does the rating scale show? A broad-based rating scale that assesses multiple domains of symptoms can be a big help for diagnostic dilemmas such as this one. Our clinic uses the Child Behavior Checklist4 which has subscales for both anxiety and attention problems. Evidence of a spike in either of those domains, or both, really can help guide our thinking.
Of course, it is very possible that the answer to the ADHD versus anxiety question is that both are present. This is a common conclusion when it comes to mental health assessment, and it is different from the traditional “this or that” thinking present in more classic differential diagnosis decision making. Research indicates that the ADHD and anxiety disorders frequently co-occur.5 When that happens, concurrent evidence-based psychotherapy for anxiety in conjunction with multimodal treatment for ADHD has been recommended as a first step.6
Based on all the information, the pediatrician judges that Devin’s disruptive behavior is in large part being driven by his level of anxiety. She makes a referral to a child psychologist to begin evidence-based psychotherapy and recommends that the school consider some modifications and accommodations that may help his behavior at school. At a follow-up appointment, Devin’s difficulties have improved, and there is little evidence of ADHD now that the anxiety has been fully addressed.
4.(Burlington, Vt.: University of Vermont, Research Center for Children, Youth, and Families, 2001).
Dr. Rettew is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine, Burlington. Follow him on Twitter @PediPsych. Email him at email@example.com.