Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a mental disorder in which a child is often worried or anxious about many things and finds it hard to control this anxiety.
The cause of GAD is unknown. Genes may play a role. Children with family members who have an anxiety disorder also may be more likely to have one. Stress may be a factor in developing GAD.
Things in a child's life that can cause stress and anxiety include:
GAD is a common condition, affecting about 2% to 6% of children. GAD usually does not occur until puberty. It is more often seen in girls than in boys.
The main symptom is frequent worry or tension for at least 6 months, even with little or no clear cause. Worries seem to float from one problem to another. Children with anxiety commonly focus their worries on:
Even when the child is aware that worries or fears are excessive, a child with GAD still has difficulty controlling them. The child often needs reassurance.
Other symptoms of GAD include:
Expecting the worst, even when there is no apparent reason for concern.
Your child may also have other physical symptoms such as:
Anxiety symptoms can affect a child's daily life. They can make it hard for the child to sleep, eat, and perform well in school.
Your child's health care provider will ask about your child's symptoms. GAD is diagnosed based on your and your child's answers to these questions.
You and your child will also be asked about her mental and physical health, problems at school, or behavior with friends and family. A physical exam or lab tests may be done to rule out other conditions that can cause similar symptoms.
The goal of treatment is to help your child feel better and function well in daily life. In less severe cases, talk therapy or medicine alone can be helpful. In more severe cases, a combination of these may work best.
Many types of talk therapy may be helpful for GAD. One common and effective type of talk therapy is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT can help your child understand the relationship between his thoughts, behaviors, and symptoms. CBT often involves a set number of visits. During CBT, your child can learn how to:
Sometimes, medicines are used to help control anxiety in children. Commonly prescribed medicines for GAD include antidepressants and sedatives. These may be used short-term or long-term. Talk with the provider to learn about your child's medicine, including possible side effects and interactions. Be sure your child takes any medicine as prescribed.
How well a child does depends on how severe the condition is. In some cases, GAD is long-term and is difficult to treat. Most children, though, get better with medicine, talk therapy, or both.
Having an anxiety disorder can put a child at risk for depression and substance abuse.
Call your child's provider if your child frequently worries or feels anxious, and it interferes with her daily activities.
Reviewed By: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.