Generalized Anxiety Disorder in Children

January 21, 2020
Generalized anxiety disorder leads children to experience excessive and wide-ranging worry about several different issues.

When considering psychological disorders in children, anxiety problems are the most common ones. It’s always difficult to diagnose this type of condition, as it’s hard to determine whether or not it’s simply part of the child’s development at that age. However, when talking about generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) we have to specify that it isn’t a specific childhood illness, such as separation anxiety is.

Since GAD is a disorder that’s more specific to older ages, it’s difficult to identify it in children. Especially taking into account that the manifestations are very similar to those produced in an adult.

However, the lack of adequate professional care can have severe consequences in the future. That’s why you need to be on the lookout for potential symptoms.

Generalized anxiety disorder in children

GAD is characterized by a constant state of worry and anxious apprehension. However, the worry doesn’t revolve around a specific area, as in social anxiety or phobias. Rather, it arises from a variety of multiple and varied aspects. There’s no clear cause for the discomfort, and the worry seems to wander from one issue to another.

The child may be aware that their anxiety is disproportionate but, even so, they’re still unable to control it. This state of worry is normally with them constantly for at least six months. It significantly affects the child’s social or school life.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder in Children

Despite the non-specificity of this anxiety, it tends to revolve mainly around:

  • School and sports performance: you can see a high level of self-demand and perfectionism in the child. They feel they must obtain the best grades and positions, and worry excessively about achieving this.
  • The personal safety of their loved ones: they can experience great suffering because of the fear that something bad is going to happen to them or their families. They often fear theft, an accident, or a natural disaster.
  • Illnesses: these children may be overly concerned about minor illnesses (their own or those of a loved one). They often have a disproportionate fear of contracting or developing new illnesses.

In addition to this “floating and continuous anxiety,” we find symptoms such as agitation and nervousness, difficulty concentrating, fatigue or irritability. Physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, and sleeping and eating disorders may also occur.

Things to keep in mind

  • Approximately 2-6% of all children are affected by GAD, with those around puberty being more likely to suffer from it.
  • GAD isn’t incompatible with the presence of any other anxiety disorder. GAD may occur together with separation anxiety disorder when the anxiety goes beyond the situations explained by the latter.
  • Due to some of its characteristics, GAD in children can be hard to tell apart from ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), since both disorders manifest difficulties in concentration and psychomotor agitation. Therefore, the doctor will need to make a good differential diagnosis.
  • There aren’t any single clear causes that can explain the origin of GAD in children. However, we do know that a person’s genetic makeup provides an element of propensity that can be accentuated by certain stressful life circumstances. A history of abuse or experiencing significant change or loss may contribute to the development of this disorder.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder in Children

Treatment for generalized anxiety disorder in children

GAD is sometimes a disorder that’s chronically progressive and difficult to manage, but many children make great improvements with proper treatment. An early diagnosis can help to reduce the impact of the syndrome as much as possible.

Both pharmacological and psychological treatments are available to address GAD. The use of either one, or a combination of both, will depend on the severity of the case and the family’s preferences.

The most commonly used drugs are antidepressants and anxiolytics. These may offer good short-term results, but you need to complement them with psychotherapy to support the child through potential changes in cognition and behavior.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been shown to be effective in teaching children to manage their level of worry and modify their distorted thinking. The right approach can make a big difference in the child’s quality of life.

  • Ruiz Sancho AM, Lago Pita B.(n.d.). Trastornos de ansiedad en la infancia y en la adolescencia. En: AEPaped. Curso de Actualización Pediatría 2005. Madrid: Exlibris Ediciones; 2005. p. 265-280
  • Cárdenas, E. M., Feria, M., Palacios, L., & de la Peña, F. (2010). Guía clínica para los trastornos de ansiedad en niños y adolescentes. México: Instituto Nacional de Psiquiatria Ramón de la Fuente Muñiz.