How can you tell the difference between ADHD and anxiety disorder?

FAQs published on July 1, 2012 in ADHD
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Anthony L. Rostain, MD
Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics
University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine
Director, Adult ADHD Treatment and
Research Program
Penn Behavioral Health, University of Pennsylvania Health System
Director, Developmental Neuropsychiatry Program
Behavioral Health Center, The Children’s Hospital
of Philadelphia
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I am often asked the following question: How can you tell the difference between ADHD and anxiety disorder? Both of those are known to interfere with attention and with completing tasks.

The truth is that very often these two disorders present simultaneously and that children with ADHD often feel very anxious and very afraid of not doing well on challenging kinds of tasks. On the other hand, children with anxiety disorder only, without ADHD, tend to have, number one, very little problem with impulsivity; and secondly, they generally have an ability to sustain attention when given things to do on their own, and it is usually their anxiety is prominent in situations like the classroom or when they are given too many things to do and not enough time to do them. So one important distinction has to do with how impairing the disorder is as far as focusing on other activities in life. Children with anxiety disorder without ADHD will be able to focus on playing games and enjoying family activities and doing the things that are, for them, fun. Whereas children with ADHD will still have trouble with situations in family and in the community, will have trouble with playing, will have trouble with enjoying the things they are doing that are not performance based.

Last modified: December 14, 2012
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