Generalized Anxiety Disorder in a child

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is one of the most common mental health issues in childhood. It’s important to treat because it often predicts adult mental health problems and later life difficulties. Its presence is frequently missed by both professionals and parents and children can suffer for many years without any help.

Early identification and treatment is important. Many adults who have GAD report they have had it for all of their lives. Early treatment can help your child develop lifelong skills to manage their anxiety. GAD in a child can be very debilitating and seriously impact their ability to be happy and successful. As an adult, GAD is strongly correlated with drug alcohol and nicotine dependence. Children with GAD may also have other diagnoses. 75 percent of people who suffer from GAD have another mental health diagnosis. GAD is very frequently accompanied by a depressive disorder diagnosis and/or a second diagnosis of anxiety such as separation anxiety or panic disorder.

Generalized anxiety disorder in a child is defined as: 

Excessive anxiety or worry

Difficulty controlling the worry

One or more of the following symptoms being present for most days and for more than 6 months:        

  • Restlessness 
  • Easily tired
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep disturbance

These symptoms must also be causing your child trouble in their life, must not be due to a medical condition or medication, and must not be due to another mental health or medical disorder. 

What are some other  symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder in a Child?

Children with Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) may spend hours doing and redoing homework or other tasks that peers complete quickly. School is very often a place where there anxiety is evident. They may put pressure on themselves to perform or appear perfectionist.

They may also excessively worry about social interactions, the safety and health of their family, world events, and natural disasters such as hurricanes and tsunamis.

They may exhibit behavioral symptoms such as tantrumming. Anxious children may display outbursts of anger with little provocation. To others this appears unprovoked, but this is may be because they are desperately trying to avoid something that might trigger their anxiety. Of course, adults around them are more likely to focus on these issues as behavioral problems, and to miss that it is anxiety that underlies the outbursts. 

Much of their anxiety may manifest as physical symptoms. They may complain of constant headaches, stomaches or other ailments that seem psychosomatic. Anxiety will often manifest itself in this manner, and children don't always know how to verbally express themselves. 

Other issues you may see in your child with Generalized anxiety disorder include feelings of self doubt and requests for reassurance about their fears. Generalized anxiety disorder in a child may cause them to feel hopeless or out of control, because the worrying takes over their lives, and they are unable to control it. Although we want to make our children feel comfortable and safe, too much reassurance can reinforce the anxiety and discourage healthy independence.  

Is it my Fault my Child has Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

No it’s not your fault! There are many things that contribute to Generalized anxiety disorder in a child. Research has taught us some traits of parents of children with anxiety disorders. For example, parents of anxious kids are more likely to have anxiety themselves. Parents who are more anxious may reinforce anxiety behaviors in their children and may also model that behavior. Research also shows that parents of children with Generalized anxiety disorder are more likely to be overprotective of their child or exhibit unnecessarily cautious behavior. We also know GAD in a child can be reinforced by a parent who does not have confidence in their child. Parents who encourage children to make choices, be independent and learn self control are less likely to have anxious kids.

Parenting Tips to Help your Child

If you think you are seeing signs of generalized anxiety in your child get your child in therapy.

Do you have confidence in your child's ability to be successful and handle their anxiety? If not, you may be limiting your child. How you can replace those limiting beliefs about your child with more positive ones? How do you handle anxiety? Does your child see you avoiding activities because you are anxious? Does she hear you talk about worries that are unrealistic?

  •  If this is the case, get some help for your own anxiety.
  • Limit your child's exposure to phone calls or conversations where she may hear you worrying or may be exposed to adult anxiety.
  • Model a positive attitude about problem solving. Generalized anxiety in a child can cause them to feel like their problems are insurmountable. They need to see you solving problems with a curious and positive attitude.
  • View problems as opportunities to learn.
  • Teach problem solving skills to your child. Identify problems, brainstorm solutions, examine the solutions, make a decision and evaluate the outcome.
  • With the help of your child's therapist, explore how you may be reinforcing the anxious behaviors your child is displaying and perpetuating their anxiety. Overprotecting your child is not good parenting, its enabling anxiety to control their life.

Imran, N., Haider, I. I., & Azeem, M. W. (2017). Generalized anxiety disorder in children and adolescents: An update. Psychiatric Annals, 47(10), 497-501. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.3928/00485713-20170913-01

Learn about when your child might need medications

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