Understanding Generalized Anxiety Disorder in Children
Updated: May 20
Medically reviewed by a board-certified clinician
A certain amount of anxiety is a normal part of a child’s healthy development. Brief separation anxiety, fears of the dark, strangers, loud noises, or storms are all common worries children may experience as they grow and mature. However, if your child starts to experience more consistent anxiety across a range of topics and areas of their life, such as around school, friends, family, health, and sports, it may be time to consider exploring if they struggle with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
As a parent or caregiver, don't let the possibility alarm you. Once you seek help, and if appropriate receive a diagnosis, you're bringing your child one step closer to an improved quality of life.
Approximately 5 percent to 10 percent of children in the general population struggle with anxiety disorders. Among children with ADHD, the rate appears to be even higher. As with adults who experience generalized anxiety disorder, females are twice as likely as their male peers to be diagnosed with GAD.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Children with generalized anxiety experience excessive, unrealistic worry and fear about everyday things. They often anticipate disaster or worst case scenarios. They may also experience restlessness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, muscle tension, fatigue, difficulty swallowing, a need for frequent urination, stomach aches, and sleep difficulties. The tension and stress are chronic and debilitating, affecting multiple areas of the child's life. Just getting through the day can be a struggle. And though a child may even recognize that their anxiety is exaggerated, he or she still can have great difficulty controlling it or managing it. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th edition, often referred to as the DSM-5, outlines specific criteria to be met in order to be properly diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. Symptoms need to be experienced for at least six months in order to be appropriately diagnosed. To make sure that your child is properly diagnosed and cared for most effectively, it is best to have a trained mental health provider assess your child. There are providers who work specifically with children and adolescents and those who are also trained in working with anxiety disorders.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Practice Parameter for the Assessment and Treatment of Children and Adolescents with Anxiety Disorders. J. Am. Acad. Child Adolesc. Psychiatry, 46:2, Feb. 2007. Anxiety Disorders Association of America. Understanding Anxiety. Thomas E. Brown, PhD. Attention Deficit Disorder: The Unfocused Mind in Children and Adults. Yale University Press. 2005.