Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) in Children and Teens

What is generalized anxiety disorder in children and teens?

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
is a mental health problem. A child with GAD has a lot of worry and fear that seems to
have no real cause. The worry may be more intense than the situation calls for. Children
or teens with GAD often worry about many things, such as:

  • Future events
  • Past behaviors
  • Social acceptance
  • Family matters
  • Their personal abilities
  • School performance

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’s normal activities. In these cases, an anxiety disorder may be present.

What causes GAD in a child or teen?

Experts believe GAD is caused by both biological and environmental factors. A child may inherit a tendency to be anxious. An imbalance of 2 chemicals in the brain (norepinephrine and serotonin) most likely plays a part.

A child can also learn anxiety and
fear from family members and others. For example, a child with a parent who is afraid of
thunderstorms may learn to fear thunderstorms. A traumatic event may also cause GAD.
This can include things such as the death of a parent, a divorce, or a serious family
accident or illness.

Which children and teens are at risk for GAD?

Children who have parents with an
anxiety disorder are more likely to have GAD. Children who seem more restrained as
toddlers may be at more risk for GAD.

What are the symptoms of GAD in a child or teen?

Unlike adults with GAD, children
and teens often don’t realize that their anxiety is more intense than the situation
calls for. Children and teens with GAD often need a lot of reassurance from the adults
in their life.

Symptoms may be a bit different for
each child. But the most common symptoms of GAD are:

  • Many worries about things before they happen
  • Many worries about friends, school, or activities
  • Almost 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
  • Lots of worry about sleeping away from home
  • Clingy behavior with family members
  • Feeling as though there is a lump in the throat
  • Extreme tiredness (fatigue)
  • Lack of concentration
  • Being easily startled
  • Being grouchy
  • Inability to relax

The symptoms of GAD may seem like
other health problems. Make sure your child sees his or her healthcare provider for a
diagnosis.

How is GAD diagnosed in a child or teen?

Before a mental health referral is
made, your child’s healthcare provider will want to rule out any other health problems.
Once this is done, a child psychiatrist or other mental health expert can diagnose GAD.
He or she will do a mental health assessment of your child. It may include a complete
emotional and social history, interviews with you and your child, and standardized
testing.