Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is defined as chronic, excessive worry and fear that seems to have no real cause. Children or adolescents with generalized anxiety disorder often worry a lot about things such as future events, past behaviors, social acceptance, family matters, their personal abilities, and/or school performance.
Anxiety disorders are believed to have biological, family, and environmental factors that contribute to the cause. A chemical imbalance involving two chemicals in the brain (norepinephrine and serotonin) may contribute to the development of anxiety disorders. While a child or adolescent may have inherited a biological tendency to be anxious, anxiety and fear can also be learned from family members and others who frequently display increased anxiety around the child. For example, a child with a parent who is afraid of thunderstorms may learn to fear thunderstorms. A traumatic experience may also trigger anxiety.
All children and adolescents experience some anxiety. It is a normal part of growing up. However, when worries and fears do not go away and interfere with a child or adolescent's usual activities, an anxiety disorder may be present. Children of parents with an anxiety disorder are more likely to develop an anxiety disorder.
Unlike adults with this disorder, children and adolescents usually do not realize that their anxiety is more intense than the situation warrants. Children and adolescents with GAD often require frequent reassurance from the adults in their lives.
The following are the most common symptoms of GAD in children and adolescents. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
Many worries about things before they happen
Many worries about friends, school, or activities
Constant thoughts and fears about safety of self and/or safety of parents
Refusing to go to school
Frequent stomachaches, headaches, or other physical complaints
Muscle aches or tension
Excessive worry about sleeping away from home
Clingy behavior with family members
Feeling as though there is a lump in the throat
Lack of concentration
Being easily startled
Inability to relax
The symptoms of GAD in children or adolescents may resemble other medical conditions or psychiatric problems. Always consult your child's doctor for a diagnosis.
A child psychiatrist or other qualified mental health professional usually diagnoses anxiety disorders in children or adolescents following a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation. Parents who note symptoms of severe anxiety in their child or teen can help by seeking an evaluation and treatment as soon as possible. Early treatment may help prevent future problems.
Specific treatment for generalized anxiety disorder will be determined by your child's doctor based on:
Your child's age, overall health, and medical history
Extent of your child's symptoms
Your child's tolerance for specific medications or therapies
Expectations for the course of the condition
Your opinion or preference
Anxiety disorders can be effectively treated. Treatment should always be based on a comprehensive evaluation of the child and family. Treatment recommendations may include cognitive behavioral therapy for the child, with the focus being to help the child or adolescent learn skills to manage his or her anxiety and to help him or her master the situations that contribute to the anxiety. Some children may also benefit from treatment with antidepressant or antianxiety medication to help them feel calmer. Parents and families play a vital, supportive role in any treatment process. Family therapy and consultation with the child's school may also be recommended.
Preventive measures to reduce the incidence of generalized anxiety disorders in children are not known at this time. However, early detection and intervention can reduce the severity of symptoms, enhance the child's normal growth and development, and improve the quality of life experienced by children or adolescents with anxiety disorders.