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Generalized Anxiety Disorder in Children

Sadly, children can experience generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).*

Children with GAD don’t generally understand that the fears and worries they live with are anything but normal, but living with GAD is not conducive to a happy childhood or healthy development, and so it is important for caregivers to learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of the disorder.

Once recognized, childhood GAD is treatable.

* GAD is an anxiety disorder characterized by frequently occurring, long lasting and severe worry or anxiety, often without legitimate cause, for a period of more than 6 months. The worry of GAD is severe enough to interfere with everyday life and it is not caused by another mental or physical health condition, by a medication or by the abuse of drugs or alcohol.

Signs and Symptoms of Childhood Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Children with GAD have normal childhood worries – but unlike kids without GAD, these worries are uncontrollable, more frequently occurring and far more severe.

Some typical subjects of worry include:

  • Worrying about getting sick or dying, or a family member getting sick or dying
  • Worrying about school performance
  • Worrying about performance in sports or other extra curricular activities
  • Worrying about war or natural disasters
  • Worrying about getting hurt, attacked or kidnapped, or a family member getting hurt
  • Worrying about the future (what if I can’t get into college and can’t get a job…)
  • Worrying about being late

Some signs of childhood GAD include:

  • Perfectionism – often restarting projects or schoolwork in a quest for perfection
  • A need for frequent reassurance or praise from adults
  • Severe worry about things without valid cause
  • Worrying about things before they happen
  • Inflexibility – absolute conformity to rules
  • Self criticism
  • Having many worries
  • Clinging to family members (unable to spend the night away from home)
  • Physical symptoms without obvious cause, such as muscle aches or soreness, stomach aches or headaches
  • An inability to sleep
  • Easily startled
  • Tense, irritable
  • Fatigue
  • The feeling of having a lump in the throat

Who Gets Childhood GAD?

GAD affects between 3% and 4% of children and can occur in kids as young as 6 years old. Doctors advise watching kids closely between the ages of 6 and 8, a period during which normal childhood worries, such as a fear of monsters, for example, tend to fade and worries about school and relationships tend to begin. Anxious behaviors during this age period may signal risk for an anxiety disorder.

Childhood GAD is caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Kids that live with close family members that also struggle with anxiety disorders may be most at risk – receiving a genetic predisposition and learning fear behaviors through observation.

How Can I Know if My Child Has GAD?

Look for the signs and symptoms of an anxiety disorder, and if you see anything that concerns you, bring your child to a children’s mental health professional for an evaluation. The earlier treatment starts the better.

When considering mental health professionals for childhood GAD treatment, SAMHSA (a federal mental health agency) recommends looking for someone that:

  • Is trained and experienced in working with children
  • Can and does prescribe medication if needed, or works with a doctor that will, when necessary
  • Uses cognitive behavioral therapy

Childhood GAD Treatments

GAD treatments for children typically involve some form of psychotherapy, and sometimes combine this talk therapy with a medication.

Some common forms of psychotherapy offered to kids with GAD include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – Our thoughts affect our emotions and so CBT teaches kids better ways to think about the risks of real life situations, to control the emotional response. Kids are taught to look at the most probable outcome of any given situation, instead of the worst possible outcome. CBT is an evidence based and proven effective therapy.
  • Relaxation training – Children can learn relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing exercises, that can reduce the experience of anxiety.
  • Family therapy

In some cases, anti-anxiety drugs or anti depressant medications are also recommended.

The Risks of Untreated General Anxiety Disorder

Children and teens with generalized anxiety disorder often don’t realize that the way they feel is anything but normal, yet untreated GAD increases the risks of a host of other conditions and behavioral or social problems, such as:

  • Academic under-performance, frequent school absences or dropping out of school
  • Poor or limited relationships with peers
  • The abuse of alcohol or drugs
  • A lack of self confidence and self esteem
  • Continuing anxiety disorders into adulthood

It is important that caregivers know the signs and symptoms of GAD and intervene if necessary, to ensure a happy and healthy period of development.

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