Understanding behavior disorders: Anxiety and Panic Disorder - Harbor School

Understanding behavior disorders: Anxiety and Panic Disorder

Understanding behavior disorders: Anxiety and Panic Disorder

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, parents and teachers are noticing more inappropriate behaviors, such as acting out disruptively or aggressively among children and teens. Some children with behavioral disorders might seem anxious, withdrawn, or disconnected from everyday reality. In some cases, a child who appears to be oppositional or aggressive may, in fact, be reacting to anxiety. Depending on his age or special needs, the child may not even fully recognize that he’s feeling anxious, or be able to articulate it. Or he may be classified as having a different condition, such as ADHD or a learning disability. Students suffering from anxiety disorders may sometimes be unable to meet academic and behavioral expectations, but there are ways that parents and teachers can help.

While all children experience nervousness from time to time, children with special needs often struggle with unnecessary anxiety that makes it difficult for them to function in school and in the community. A professional therapist is vital to help with diagnosis and treatment. A professional can help you understand what’s really going on with your child and can give the child tools to handle anxiety and prevent meltdowns.

What is an Anxiety Disorder?

An anxiety disorder is characterized by debilitating fear and worry. It can be a specific phobia about one particular thing or general anxiety disorder, which is constant worrying about lots of things. These forms of anxiety can cause headaches or stomach aches, or the child may become so overwhelmed that she isolates herself or acts out in frustration. Panic disorder is a sudden, intense episode of anxiety that can cause hyperventilating and a pounding heartbeat.

How to Help Special Needs Children with Anxiety Disorders

Pay attention to your child’s feelings. When your child becomes anxious, it can help to have an action plan of positive steps to prevent the anxiety from escalating.

Stay calm. Stop what you are doing and take a few deep breaths with your child. Anxiety is contagious and it is very difficult for a parent to remain calm when the child is having a meltdown. Remember to breathe.

Empathize. Don’t dismiss the child’s feelings. Assure your child that his feelings are valid, and you will help him work through them. Convey confidence in the child's ability to handle his worries.

Praise. Once your child calms down, recognise and reward her courageous effort to manage the anxiety. Don’t minimize the effort by saying, “That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Instead, praise the child for doing something that was very difficult.

Plan for transitions. Any transition is difficult for a special needs child, so try to maintain a normal routine whenever possible. When the routine will be disrupted, give the child plenty of time and support to prepare mentally and physically.

Make a list

Create a checklist of coping skills that work for your child. Teach your child to work through the checklist when he or she is anxious. Some items on the checklist might include:

  • Take a deep breath.
  • Pet an animal or find another tactile outlet like squeezing some slime.
  • Sing a song.
  • Catch your thoughts. Write down or speak the anxious feeling. Ask, is it true?
While the disruptive behavior of an extremely anxious child is upsetting for everyone, anxiety disorders in special needs children can be managed, with some empathy, smart strategies, and professional help.
lee vodfsky

Harbor School a private special education school in Monmouth County, New Jersey

Our mission at Harbor School is to help all of our special needs students with learning, social, language, behavioral, and other disabilities. Our highly skilled staff are committed daily to helping each student reach their full potential.

We would be more than happy to discuss your child's specific needs and challenges, so please call us at 732.544.9394, or request a tour at Harbor School in Eatontown, NJ. We are located just minutes off of the Garden State Parkway at exit 105 and conveniently located off of Route 35 and Route 36 in Monmouth County, NJ.

Lee Vodofsky
Principal-Harbor School, Eatontown, NJ