The occasional bout of anxiety is normal. Worries regarding money, health and relationship issues happen every now and then, but these concerns also come and go. When someone worries on a continuous basis about various life issues or experiences ongoing anxiety for no known reason, GAD (also known as generalized anxiety disorder) may be the reason.
GAD in children isn’t as prevalent as it is in adults, but children can still develop this disorder. Much like the adult form, children affected by generalized anxiety disorder worry constantly, regardless of whether there’s reason to worry or not.
According to Duke University, an estimated three to five percent of children struggle with anxiety disorders. After ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder, GAD in children ranks as the third most common psychological disorder affecting children and adolescents.
Treatments for GAD in children are, for the most part, the same treatment types used with adults. Psychotherapy and medication treatments make-up the two main approaches used. As with any type of psychological disorder, certain risk factors can predispose a child to developing GAD.
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Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Much like the name suggests, children affected by generalized anxiety disorder experience a “generalized” form of anxiety as opposed to only feeling anxious within certain situations. According to the National Institute on Mental Health, people affected by GAD usually realize they’re overreacting, but still have no way of controlling how they feel.
Symptoms of GAD in children include:
- Worrying about situations before they happen
- Tends to cling to parents or other family members
- Not wanting to go to school
- Worrying about friends
- Problems sleeping
- Muscle aches
- Fears regarding his or her safety
- Fears regarding his or her parents’ safety
- Inability to concentrate
- Low energy levels
- Easily startled
GAD in children limits their ability to function effectively in the classroom. A child affected by GAD may also have difficulty socializing with other children.
The types of treatment for GAD in children vary based on the severity of symptoms and the degree to which the disorder hampers a child’s daily routine.
More oftentimes than not, negative thinking patterns account for the pervasive feeling of anxiety GAD in children causes. In cases where a child experiences intense anxiety symptoms, a genetic component may also be at work.
According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, criteria used to determine the course of treatment for GAD in children include:
- Severity of symptoms
- The child’s age
- Health status
- A child’s tolerance for medication versus therapy treatment
- Medical history
- The parent’s treatment preference
- Expectations of treatment
Ultimately, any form of treatment used works to correct faulty thinking patterns and/or ease the emotional distress experienced by the child. In the process, a child learns healthy ways of coping with difficult or stressful situations. In some cases, family participation in the treatment process may be warranted. For the most part, GAD in children is a highly treatable condition.
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As far as psychotherapy treatment approaches go, cognitive-behavioral therapy is a standard form of treatment for GAD in children. Cognitive-behavioral therapy works to undo destructive thinking patterns using a three-part process:
- Anxiety management
- Exposure-based interventions
- Response prevention
Anxiety management entails helping a child identify anxiety-producing thought patterns. The therapist then help the child see how the content of his or her thoughts doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation. From there, the child learns how to direct his or her thinking patterns from a more objective standpoint.
Exposure-based interventions gradually walk a child through anxiety-prone situations in an effort to desensitize him or her to the fear. Response prevention entails helping him or her to identity the triggers and cues that set off anxious feelings. Once identified, anxiety management practices can be applied as a way to ward of destructive thinking patterns before they start.
GAD in children can stem from a genetic component in cases where a family history of mental illness exists. Like other types of psychological disorders, symptoms can grow progressively worse to the point where medication treatment is necessary. Under these conditions, little to no treatment progress can be made until a child’s emotional symptoms have been brought under control.
According to the University of California-Los Angeles, antidepressant medications in the form of SSRIs or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are commonly used to treat GAD in children. As the symptoms associated with GAD in children can easily predispose a child to developing depression symptoms, SSRIs work well at relieving both anxiety and depression-based symptoms all at once.
Other types of medications used include benzodiazepines and BuSpar, though SSRIs are a first-line medication in the treatment of GAD in children.
Psychotherapy and Medication Treatment
While medications do help relieve anxiety symptoms associated with GAD in children, medications alone cannot address the underlying factors that fuel the disorder like psychotherapy does. On the other hand, many children do not respond to psychotherapy alone.
More oftentimes than not, GAD in children requires a combined treatment approach using both cognitive-behavioral therapy and medication. This is especially the case for children who refuse to attend school.
Even though it’s unintentional, parents may well enable GAD-related behaviors in their children. Enabling on the parents’ part can take any number of forms, some of which include:
- Letting the child stay home from school
- Allowing the child to be “clingy” or even encouraging the behavior
- A dysfunctional or chaotic home environment that validates the child’s concerns regarding safety
For these reasons, family therapy sessions will also likely be necessary in order to get everybody on the same page in terms of helping the child learn to manage GAD symptoms.
Call 800-598-5053 toll free for help finding treatment.
Risk factors for GAD in children include both environmental and genetic influences. A family history of mental illness typically encompasses certain communication and interaction styles that inevitably influence a child’s upbringing and conditioning.
Most notably, children born to parents diagnosed with anxiety or depressive-spectrum disorders have the highest risk of developing GAD. In either case, GAD in children can grow progressively worse with time, increasing the likelihood that a child will struggle with generalized anxiety disorder as an adult.