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How do you know if your child's behavior is anxiety or bad behavior? What is anxiety? What is the positive intention of anxiety? How can we tell whether or not a behavior is related to an existing diagnosis or to anxiety? What are the potential symptoms of anxiety? What kinds of natural supports can you provide for your children if they do struggle with anxiety? This article seeks to answer all of these questions and help you find natural supports for your child with special needs who also experiences anxiety.


We were getting our four children ready for school and our daughter burst into what seemed like an unprovoked hysterical crying tantrum. These outbursts had started to become a regular occurrence over the last year. Honestly, we thought that she was attention seeking because her younger sister got a lot of one-on-one time from her therapists as a result of her in-home therapy, her brother was getting extra attention at school in reading to help with his dyslexia, and her baby brother just got a lot of attention because he was an adorable baby.

The outbursts seemed to be isolated to occurring at home most days before school. Then, what seemed like all of a sudden, the outbursts started happening in school right before she had to take a test; test anxiety didn't make sense because she was a straight A student.

How do any of us know if these types of outbursts are more than just attention-seeking behavior? Well, if the behaviors persist despite supports you put in place and/or start to interfere with their daily life, it might be more than just a tantrum, it could be anxiety.


According to, anxiety disorders are one of the most common health problems of childhood and adolescents. According to and the national alliance on mental illness,, anxiety disorders can cause people to feel excessively frightened, distressed, or uneasy during situations where many others would not feel afraid. There are several types of anxiety you might hear: generalized anxiety, OCD, phobias, social anxiety, panic attacks, and PTSD. Regardless of the type of anxiety, there is a positive intention from the body in causing anxiety. The body's job is to protect itself. Therefore, anxiety is a result of the body itself trying to protect itself; anxiety is not a willful negative behavior your child is using to get something they want, or as a desperate plea for attention.

If you can change your frame of mind to consider that the body is causing the anxiety as a physiological response to stress with the intent to protect the body, you can fathom that your child is not trying to act out in a negative way. Your child is most likely just as confused as you are by their behavior. If you can consider that behavior is a form of the body's non-verbal communication, perhaps you can reconsider how you might handle the situation.


Even if you accept the idea that behavior is communication and it is essentially a cry for assistance or intervention, how do you know if your child's special needs diagnosis is the reason for the behavior or if the reason is anxiety? While you cannot always tell if the behavior is related to an autism diagnosis or a social anxiety disorder, you can consider that the condition might contribute to the anxiety or the anxiety might present itself uniquely due to other disorders. For example, if your child has an autism diagnosis and is nonverbal, your child may not be able to tell you their stomach hurts due to anxiety, but they may start or increase their self-injurious behavior.

The key take-away here is to consider if your child's existing diagnosis might have communication, sensory, focus, learning, or unique processing considerations that can make it more difficult to see patterns, triggers, physical signs, or behaviors. The potential symptoms of anxiety are important to understand so you can use this information to determine if you have more going on than the existing diagnosis.


If we are not always able to determine whether or not the behavior is related to an existing diagnosis or if it is anxiety, what are some potential symptoms and how might they present themselves differently if your child has another diagnosis? Anxiety potential symptoms include physical signs like stomach aches, headaches, or muscle tension. If you have a nonverbal child with an autism diagnosis, they might increase head banging activities. Other anxiety symptoms include excessive behavior, complaining, crying, tantrums, bad moods, behavior progressions, clingy behavior, or manipulative behaviors like aggression or self-harm. All of these symptoms might show up in a unique way depending on your child's initial diagnosis. So, what do you do?


If you identify behaviors or symptoms that seem like they might be related to an anxiety disorder, it is always best to seek a medical professional's input. However, if you either have a diagnosis of anxiety already or you want to support your child with behaviors that could be related to anxiety, here are a few tips.

There are a few strategies for supporting children with anxiety with special needs. The first step is to closely observe your child and see if you can identify triggers, changes in their behaviors, or clues that they are having physical symptoms. If you are able to notice any of these behaviors before they have an anxiety attack, you can encourage them to attempt self-soothing techniques like counting, taking deep breaths, meditation, or visualization. Try techniques informed by your awareness of your child's abilities.

If you are not able to prevent the behaviors using observation, you can try to be proactive and help them avoid triggers, use social stories to prepare them, create visual activity boards so they are aware of what is happening next. You can also create an anxiety toolbox, including things like a security item, fidget toys, eye masks, weighted lap blankets, headphones, or other items that can help support their need to reduce the potentially negative external stimuli. You can also assist you child by rewarding good choices, so they have models for appropriate behaviors. You can work to anchor positive thoughts and experiences to the location that is causing them the anxiety.

If you are unable to help with any of the above strategies, consider physically removing your child from the area that seems to be causing the anxiety. Give them a quiet place to decompress or a safe place to reset or rest.


It was hard to see our daughter's anxious behavior as a positive intention when we were trying to calm her down. However, we found that we often needed to use the same techniques for ourselves before we attempted any interventions. While our daughter didn't have an additional diagnosis, we often had to consider whether our child with an autism diagnosis was dealing with a typical social avoidance behavior common with her diagnosis or if it was an escalating social anxiety disorder. Either way, if we took the time to calm ourselves with a few deep breaths, then observed the behavior of our daughters to see if we could pinpoint what the behavior was trying to communicate to us, we were better able to use trial and error to help support our girls.

Our oldest daughter still has struggles with some obsessive behaviors, some phobias of things like bugs, and some generalized anxiety. However, we are content to say that for the most part she is using her own natural supports to keep her anxiety under control. Our daughter with the autism diagnosis still struggles with things that seem to be typical for both autism and for anxiety. We provide her more natural supports, like time to take a break and lowering the lights, than our oldest daughter. It has been a five-year journey with the two of them, but they are both coming along well.

Anxiety, if it persists, can interfere with your child's daily life. However, whatever behaviors they are exhibiting are not bad or naughty; that is a judgement of a physiological response. Physiological responses are neither good or bad, they just are. As with all behaviors, they are the body's way of communicating a message that there is something wrong and it requires our help and assistance to address. Anxiety is essentially the body's flight and fight response kicked into overdrive and it is trying to help your child feel better. Our job as parents is to see the signs that our children might miss and try to help them uncover the solution to the body's problem.

Whether or not a child has a special need can complicate or make observing behaviors and identifying their source more challenging at times. Yet, if we are observant and look for changes in behavior patterns, repeated triggers to behaviors, physical signs or symptoms, or increases in seemingly excessive behaviors it can be a sign that our child needs more natural supports. Effective supports might differ based on your child's abilities. For example, you might not use counting to ten with a child that is nonverbal or is unable to count. As with many behavioral interventions, assisting with anxiety is often a result of trial and error.

One final thought. Anxiety is a serious disorder. If you feel you need assistance in identifying if you child has anxiety, always seek appropriate medical attention. If you feel you are not able to provide the natural supports needed, always seek appropriate medical attention. While this article offers some natural support solutions, there are pharmacologic solutions as well as other holistic options. Whatever method you take to assist your child, just know there is often trial and error in the process of finding support.

Jackie Schwabe is CEO of Mindlight, LLC. She is a Certified Caregiving Consultant and Certified Caregiving Educator. She received her BA in Management Computer systems from the University of Wisconsin--Whitewater and her MBA in Technology Project Management from the University of Phoenix. She has been active in the area of healthcare integration, healthcare it, telemedicine, product development, and product management for over 20 years. She has been a cross-sector, cross-discipline leadership practitioner her entire career. Jackie wakes up motivated to help others. Her mission, to provide the tools, opportunities, and connections people need to be their best self. A mother of four children--one with autism--she often says different is not less and communication happens in more ways than verbally. she co-founded Mindlight, LLC as a way to technologically help caregivers.

Caption: THE PARENT'S PART: Anxiety is essentially the body's flight and fight response, and it is trying to help your child feel better. Our job as parents is to see the signs that our children might miss and try to help them uncover the solution to the body's problem.
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Author:Schwabe, Jackie
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Feb 1, 2019

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