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Anxiety disorder or possible gifted traits?

By Inderbir Kaur Sandhu, Ph.D

Q: My 7 years old son seems to have intense fears and strong emotions. For example, This evening when reading a book with him about entomologists studying bugs in Africa he started crying. When I asked him what was wrong he said "Now I can't be an entomologist. There are Mosquitoes in Africa that suck animal and human blood and can kill you. "

Punishment has to be light with this guy. He will self punish such as put himself in timeout or sit out during recess to punish himself. He is very careful in washing his hands because he does not want germs.

He does not like sports/riding a bike because he might get hurt and forget about flying in an airplane. He lots of empathy for others. Such as when baby sister was getting her shots he was crying and had to leave the room. He is highly critical of his school work and things have to be perfect in his eyes. His teacher told us she believes he is gifted because of his high reading comprehension and math skills. Is this anxiety problems or gifted characteristics? Any advice would be great.

A: From your description, I am not able to tell if he is possibly gifted; but if the teacher thinks he may be gifted then he could be twice exceptional. That means possibly gifted with some form of learning concern. These category of children are considered exceptional both ways because of their intellectual gifts and at the same time, their special needs. You did not mention if his gifts (as in academically) are being affected by his extreme anxiety but it would at some point (if it has not already).

From your description, he has anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are said to be among the most common mental, emotional, and behavioural problems during childhood and adolescence (usually between ages 9 - 17 years). However, it could occur at any age, depending on the child's biological sensitivity, personality traits, and the presenting situations and stressors. Your son started a little early and it could only get worse if left unattended. He appears to have a few of the common anxiety disorders namely three of them based on your description:

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (extreme, unrealistic worry about everyday life activities); Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (repetitive thoughts and behaviours and causes him to obsess and have a compulsion); and Phobias (unrealistic and excessive fears of certain situations or objects).

Usually if the child is twice exceptional, anxiety often develops when they start school, unless the environment recognizes and acts on their asynchronous development. Twice exceptional children may be more prone to developing anxiety because of the challenges they face. Gifted children are highly intense, sensitive, and tend to be perfectionist. When they have a “difficulty” that impairs functioning (for instance attention problems, impulsivity, difficulty relating to others, and difficulty reading), it somehow becomes an additional burden for them. A child who is anxiety-prone is usually a “responsible, dependable, and motivated, good student, strives to do well academically, wants to please adults and peers, seeks approval and reassurance, usually well-behaved, difficulty with assertiveness, tends to be perfectionistic, high expectations, may be unusually disappointed or frustrated with mistakes or imperfect results, and oversensitivity to criticism or rejection.” These kids can be overly sensitive and live in the world of “shoulds” and could possibly have “all-or-nothing” or “black and white” thinking.

Most importantly now is for you to recognise this and take action. He needs a trained professional to first treat his anxiety. The good news is that it is very treatable. For some children, complete cure is possible. For others, the treatment is basically learning how to control and react to stressors in a positive and healthy way. Treatments include psychotherapy, reducing triggers and stressors, practice, relaxation, play therapy, medication etc. No doubt, the earlier the intervention the better the chances of leading a normal life. Please act as soon as you can. Good luck.


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