Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) in children and Young People

The Oxford English dictionary defines GAD as… ‘A psychological disorder characterised by excessive or unrealistic anxiety about two or more aspects of life.’


The exact cause of GAD isn’t fully known, but various research has suggested there could be many factors involved. For example, a person’s Genes may play a role (you’re estimated to be five times more likely to develop GAD if you have a close relative with the condition). Also, an imbalance of the brain chemicals serotonin and noradrenaline (which are involved in the control and regulation of mood) seems to have an effect. Recently, the University College Cork, Ireland, found a strong link between high levels of depressive and anxious behaviour and having a low level of gut microbes. Stress may also be a factor in developing GAD. So, as you can see, finding a definitive cause is difficult!


child with anxiety imageWhat we do know though, is that whether, or not it’s an originating cause, high levels of stress in a child are a problem. Things in a child’s life that can cause stress and anxiety include:


  • Loss, such as death of a loved one.
  • The breakup of their parents’ marriage.
  • Big life changes, such as moving to a new area.
  • A history of physical or mental abuse.
  • Living with other family with members who are fearful, anxious, or violent.


GAD is usually associated with adults, as the condition is more common in people from the ages of 35 to 59. However, it also affects about 4% of children. GAD usually does not occur until puberty. As with adults, it’s more often seen in girls than in boys.



The most common symptom is frequent worry, or tension for at least 6 months, even with little or no clear cause. Worries sometimes seem to float from one problem to another.

Children with anxiety issues commonly display many of the following symptoms:

  • Restlessness or feeling ‘wound-up’ or on edge.
  • Being easily fatigued.
  • anger issues imageDifficulty concentrating or having their minds go blank.
  • Muscle tension.
  • Difficulty controlling the worry..
  • Sleep problems (difficulty falling or staying asleep or restless, unsatisfying sleep).
  • Not eating enough, or overeating.
  • Outburst of anger.
  • A pattern of being disobedient, hostile, or defiant.
  • Expecting the worst, even when there is no apparent reason for concern.


Anxiety symptoms can affect a child’s daily life as well. They can make it hard for the child to sleep, eat, or perform well in school.


Your child’s health care provider will ask about your child’s symptoms. GAD is diagnosed based on both you and your child’s answers to these questions. You and your child will also be asked about their general mental and physical health. Also if there are any problems at school, or disruptive behaviour with friends and family, etc.


Once diagnosed, the goal of any treatment offered, is to help your child feel better and function well in daily life. In less severe cases, talking therapy alone can be helpful. In more severe cases, a combination of talking therapy and medication may work best.

Talking Therapy


One common and effective type of talking therapy is cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT can help your child understand the relationship between their thoughts, behaviours, and symptoms. CBT often involves a set number of visits.

During CBT, your child can learn how to:

  • Understand stressors, such as life events or other people’s behaviour and gain control of distorted views of them.
  • Recognise and replace anxiety-causing thoughts, helping them feel more in control.
  • Manage stress and learn how to relax when symptoms occur.
  • Avoid thinking that minor problems will develop into terrible ones.




Sometimes, in more severe cases, medications are used to help control anxiety in children. They are commonly either antidepressants or sedatives. These may be used short-term or long-term.  If your child is prescribed medication, talk with the provider to learn about the particular medicine, including any possible side effects and interactions. Always be sure your child takes any medicine as prescribed.

Outlook (Prognosis)

How well a child does depends on how severe the condition is. In some cases, GAD is long-term and is difficult to treat. Most children, though, get better with treatment.

Whatever diagnosis is determined for your child, remember that almost 10% of children and young people (aged between 5 – 16 years) have a clinically diagnosable mental disorder1. Another way to look at it is that approximately 3 children in every classroom have some form of mental disorder. It’s not a taboo anymore (finally!! 🙂 ) and by getting treatment early, you’re improving the chances for success.

There are various websites you can visit for guidance, or just more information about mental health and children. I’ve listed just a few below. Click the links to visit the sites.

Young Minds

Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition

Child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS)



1  Mental health of children and young people in Great Britain, 2004 (Office for National Statistics)( Download a copy of the report here )

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