Bruce Hirsch, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who serves as Director of the Clinical Department at the Frostig Center in Pasadena, California, a school and center for learning disabled students. He also has a private clinical practice specializing in psychotherapy with children and families, learning disabilities, and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. He co-authored two articles on our website on recognizing and treating anxiety in children with learning and attention problems. 

This conversation about children’s anxiety between Dr. Hirsch and parents of children with learning and attention problems originally took place in 2006 on the parent message board hosted by Schwab Learning, formerly a program of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation. Because the topic is timeless, we feel readers will find much that is useful and important for their own parenting challenges.

Anxiety and Sleep Disturbances

From: healthy11

I’d like to ask how a person can determine if an LD teen who has panic/anxiety attacks at night is just “stuck” with a lousy family history (dad has occasional panic/anxiety attacks) or if they could be the result of some other stresses that can be better managed?

From: healthy11

When my son was younger (under age 10) once a month or so he used to have what I called “scream dreams,” and when I’d check in on him, he could answer simple questions (i.e., Are you hot? “Yes.”) but he would soon fall back asleep and not have any recollection of it the next morning…

Dr. Hirsch responds:

healthy11 –
I don’t think that what your son is experiencing are “random events.” I think there are causes for the anxiety, although we can’t always determine what those causes are. In all likelihood, the family history (which we can’t do anything about) and particular stressors (which we can) are factors…

Managing Anxiety at School

From: JWmom

My 10-year-old son has ADHD/anxiety, and is taking medication for both. He also sees a child psychologist. He has major issues with anxiety at school, usually revolving around the amount of homework and pressure to complete class work on time. What accommodations would you suggest we ask the school to provide when he is feeling anxious?

Dr. Hirsch responds:

JWmom –
In general, I would rather see an anxious child complete a smaller chunk of work and feel successful than to always have unfinished work hanging over him. The latter just increases the anxiety…

Anxiety about Approaching New Experiences

From: Suzanne_86

As a parent of a 13-year-old – what is the best way to deal with a child’s anxiety over not [being] willing to try new (safe) experiences – such as going to an event with family friends (without me/dad along). Sleep-overs at a cousin’s house? The anxiety of doing things that don’t seem to phase/or stress non-LD kids…

Dr. Hirsch responds:

Suzanne_86 –
You have 2 questions floating out there. The first is about new experiences that make your son anxious. I appreciate your openness that the more you try to help break the cycle, the more you feel like you are feeding the cycle. I think that may be because you are getting too caught up in whether he gets over these hurdles now…


Anxiety, Perfectionism, and Refusing to Accept Help

Dr. Hirsch comments:

…it looks like a theme of perfectionism and not wanting/accepting help is prevalent [in your questions today]. You are really getting to some difficult core issues. The goal I think we would all agree to for our kids and ourselves would go something like this (and forgive me but for simplicity I’m going to use “he” when it could clearly be “she” as well): The person has a realistic view of himself, including his strengths and weaknesses. He is proud of his strengths, has some sadness in regard to weaknesses but not so much as to overwhelm his positive sense of self-esteem …

From: healthy11

This question is perhaps opposite to one of children with low self-esteem, but I’ve seen it brought up several times by different posters without any answer. It still has to do with emotional issues that children with learning and attentional issues face, but the problem seems to involve a student’s “self-confidence” and perhaps even “cockiness” that they can handle their situation themselves, and don’t want parental involvement. …It seems to me like they “just want to be like the other kids” but what is a parent supposed to do?

Dr. Hirsch responds:

healthy11 –
I would try to compromise – let go of some of the help you think your child needs but insist on some tutoring – and see how that goes. If your child is so resistant that he sabotages the help, I would abandon all of it. In either case, I would tell your child as calmly as possible that you will consider this like an experiment and see how he does with each help or no help situation…

From: JWmom

Hi! We have a similar (but slightly different) issue – my son is very reluctant to ask for help at school. He seems to think that when he is having difficulty, everyone else is sailing through the material, so he is embarrassed to ask for help, and he also thinks that it wouldn’t do any good to ask for help… 

Dr. Hirsch responds:

JWmom –
Sometimes it works better to have an alert, sympathetic teacher offer help at first and then help the child transition to asking for the help himself. Keep pointing out when your son is doing well at tasks; if you are real and not falsely reassuring it will eventually sink in even though your son is resistant now…


From: Deeyana

I see some anxiety/emotional issues when ever my 7-year-old perfectionist son is not “the best” in something or when he is wrong. …Perfectionism seems to be a BIG issue. I personally don’t understand how someone soooo young can think this way…

Dr. Hirsch responds:

Deeyana –
One of the keys is that you say that your son has made some improvement in his perfectionism. Try to focus on that progress. You can encourage small risks, but don’t expect him to easily adopt your “we all learn from our mistakes” approach. Respect the fact that his self-esteem is more fragile than that, and gradually work to bolster it…

From: peace4u

…I messed up dinner and kicked myself over and over about it. I hate to fail at anything because it makes me feel like I did in school…a failure. I cried over biscuits and gravy, something I have made several times but when a “TEST” comes along I panic and those old feelings come flooding back. I feel this way with every aspect of my life and fear that my kids witness this and they will mimic the same feelings or turn away from trying. I don’t want kids, my own or anyone else’s to grow up feeling this way so how do I (we) change this?

Dr. Hirsch responds:

peace4u-
Wow, you really understand this stuff first hand. You can use your self-knowledge to help your kids in ways that you weren’t helped as a kid. Don’t overwhelm them with your feelings when your emotions are still raw. But once you have settled down share with your kids that you just had an episode where you beat yourself up unnecessarily, and ask if they ever do that…

From: CharlotteD

My 8yo is a dyslexic, anxious perfectionist with auditory processing problems. She has made huge strides in the last few years in everything. I homeschool her so there are many things that we can work on facing in a controlled circumstance. However, she has been doing something that I could use help with. When she is upset with herself, she hits her forehead…

Dr. Hirsch responds:

CharlotteD-
You don’t say whether her hitting her forehead is a gentle tap with her hand from frustration (which I wouldn’t make much of) or whether she is hitting herself hard enough to hurt herself and/or adding hurtful language like, “I’m so stupid.” I would tend to come from an empathic place, letting your daughter know that you really understand how frustrated she is…

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