Generalized Anxiety Disorder in Children and Teens

What is generalized anxiety disorder?

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a chronic, excessive worry and fear that seems to have no real cause. Children or teens with GAD often worry a lot about many things. These include future events, past behaviors, social acceptance, family matters, their personal abilities, or school performance.

What causes generalized anxiety disorder?

Anxiety disorders are believed to have biological, family, and environmental factors that contribute to the cause. A chemical imbalance involving 2 chemicals in the brain (norepinephrine and serotonin) may contribute to the development of anxiety disorders. A child or teen may have inherited a biological tendency to be anxious, anxiety and fear. This tendency can also be learned from family members and others who often display increased anxiety around the child. For example, a child with a parent who is afraid of thunderstorms may learn to fear thunderstorms. A traumatic experience may also trigger anxiety.

Who is affected by generalized anxiety disorder?

All children and teens have some anxiety. It is a normal part of growing up. But sometimes worries and fears don’t go away. They may interfere with a child or teen’s normal activities. In these cases an anxiety disorder may be present. Children of parents with an anxiety disorder are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder.

What are the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder?

Unlike adults with this disorder, children and teens usually don’t realize that their anxiety is more intense than the situation calls for. Children and teens with GAD often need frequent reassurance from the adults in their lives.

Each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms of GAD may include:

  • Many worries about things before they happen

  • Many worries about friends, school, or activities

  • Constant thoughts and fears about the child’s safety or the parents’ safety

  • Refusing to go to school

  • Frequent stomachaches, headaches, or other physical complaints

  • Muscle aches or tension

  • Sleep problems

  • Excessive worry about sleeping away from home

  • Clingy behavior with family members

  • Feeling as though there is a lump in the throat

  • Extreme tiredness

  • Lack of concentration

  • Being easily startled

  • Irritability

  • Inability to relax

The symptoms of GAD in children or teens may look like other health conditions or psychiatric problems. Always talk with your child's healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is generalized anxiety disorder diagnosed?

A child psychiatrist or other qualified mental health professional usually diagnoses anxiety disorders in children or teens after a full psychiatric evaluation. Parents who note symptoms of severe anxiety in their child or teen can help by seeking an evaluation and treatment as soon as possible. Early treatment may help prevent future problems.

Treatment for generalized anxiety disorder

Children and teens with GAD can’t just pull themselves together and get better. Treatment is often needed. In many cases, treatment is key to recovery. Treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is.

Anxiety disorders can be effectively treated. Treatment should always be based on a full evaluation of the child and family. Parents and families play a vital, supportive role in any treatment process.

Treatment may include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy for the child. This focuses on helping the child or teen learn skills to manage anxiety. It also focuses on helping the child master the situations that lead to the anxiety.

  • Medicines. Treatment with antidepressant or antianxiety medicine may help some children feel calmer.

  • Family therapy

  • Consultation with the child's school

Prevention of generalized anxiety disorder

It’s not known how to prevent GAD in children. But diagnosing the disorder early and getting professional help for your child can reduce severe symptoms. Taking these steps can enhance a teen’s normal growth and development. And it can improve your child’s quality of life.