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What is generalized anxiety disorder?

Generalized anxiety disorder is a kind of anxiety that can cause children and teenagers extreme worry about many different things. Kids with generalized anxiety disorder are constantly worried about a variety of everyday things, like doing well in school or sports. For example, a child with generalized anxiety disorder might study much more than their classmates, even if they’re already doing well.  

What are the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder?

In general, kids with generalized anxiety disorder worry a lot about being perfect and living up to expectations. 

A child with generalized anxiety disorder may: 

  • Constantly worry about lots of different things 
  • Focus too much on doing well on assignments or tests 
  • Fear they won’t accomplish goals 
  • Worry much more than most kids 

Kids with generalized anxiety disorder often show signs in their behavior too. They may be easily annoyed or restless. 

Their stress can also cause physical symptoms such as exhaustion, stomachaches or headaches. 

Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder can also be symptoms of other anxiety disorders. This can make it difficult to diagnose.  

How is generalized anxiety disorder diagnosed?

Generalized anxiety disorder is more than ordinary worry. These children’s concerns last longer and aren’t caused by a certain event. 

A child is diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder when they: 

  • Are unable to control their anxiety  
  • Have concerns about several different things 
  • Easily become very upset  
  • Show symptoms most days for at least six months 

In addition, a child must also have one of these symptoms:  

  • Unable to relax 
  • Exhaustion 
  • Unable to focus 
  • Quick temper 
  • Tight muscles 
  • Trouble sleeping 

Children are not typically diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder until they become teenagers. Generalized anxiety disorder is more common in girls than in boys.   

How is generalized anxiety disorder treated?

Generalized anxiety disorder is usually treated with therapy or a combination of therapy and medication. Parents and other family members are an important part of treatment, since they can help kids practice the skills they learn in therapy. 

The most common therapy for generalized anxiety disorder is a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) called exposure therapy. There are two parts to exposure therapy: 

  • The therapist exposes the child to something that triggers anxiety, beginning with something very small. As the child becomes upset, the therapist teaches them ways to handle their fear. They repeat this process with bigger and bigger stressors.  
  • The therapist teaches the child how to recognize anxiety symptoms. They also discuss how the child’s thinking adds to their anxiety. The therapist helps the child understand that their response is bigger than it needs to be and teaches them ways to change their thought patterns.  

CBT may only last for 10 to 20 sessions if the child and their family regularly practice these new skills outside of therapy sessions.  

Children with generalized anxiety disorder tend to respond well to certain antidepressant medications called SSRIs. Anti-anxiety drugs may also be prescribed if SSRIs do not work. 

This guide was last reviewed or updated on June 17, 2024.