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Generalized Anxiety Disorder in Children and Adolescents

By

Josephine Elia

, MD, Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University

Last full review/revision Apr 2021| Content last modified Apr 2021

Generalized anxiety disorder is a persistent state of heightened anxiety and apprehension characterized by excessive worrying, fear, and dread. Physical symptoms can include tremor, sweating, multiple somatic complaints, and exhaustion. Diagnosis is by history. Treatment is often with relaxation therapy, sometimes combined with drug therapy.

(See also Overview of Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents and Generalized Anxiety Disorder in adults.)

Symptoms and Signs

Children with generalized anxiety disorder have multiple and diffuse worries, which are exacerbated by stress. These children often have difficulty paying attention and may be hyperactive and restless. They may sleep poorly, sweat excessively, feel exhausted, and complain of physical discomfort (eg, stomachache, muscle aches, headache). The abrupt and dramatic disruption in routines during the COVID-19 pandemic—such as school closure and isolation from extended family, peers, teachers, cultural and religious groups—increased anxiety in nearly all children. Living in constrained spaces with family members for weeks to months, parental job loss, and general uncertainty about the future increased stress as well (1).

Symptoms and signs reference

  • 1. Coronavirus (COVID-19), Coping With Stress. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed 3/11/21.

Diagnosis

  • Clinical criteria

Generalized anxiety disorder is diagnosed in children and adolescents who have prominent and impairing anxiety symptoms that are not focused enough to meet criteria for a specific disorder such as social anxiety disorder or panic disorder. Generalized anxiety disorder is also an appropriate diagnosis for children who have a specific anxiety disorder, such as separation anxiety, but also have other significant anxiety symptoms above and beyond those of the specific anxiety disorder.

Specific criteria include the presence of each of the following:

  • Excessive anxiety and worry that patients have difficulty controlling
  • Symptoms present on more days than not for ≥ 6 months
  • Symptoms cause significant distress or impair functioning socially or at school

In addition, the above criteria must be accompanied by ≥ 1 of the following:

  • Restlessness or a keyed-up or on-edge feeling
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep disturbance

Occasionally, generalized anxiety disorder can be confused with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) because generalized anxiety disorder can cause difficulty paying attention and can result in psychomotor agitation (ie, hyperactivity). However, in ADHD, children also have difficulty concentrating and feel restless when they are not anxious. Some children have both ADHD and an anxiety disorder.

Treatment

  • Relaxation therapy
  • Sometimes anxiolytic drugs, usually selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)

Because the focus of symptoms is diffuse, generalized anxiety disorder is especially challenging to treat with behavioral therapy. Relaxation training is often more appropriate.

Patients who have severe generalized anxiety disorder or who do not respond to psychotherapeutic interventions may need anxiolytic drugs. As with other anxiety disorders, SSRIs (see table Drugs for Long-Term Treatment of Anxiety and Related Disorders) are typically the drugs of choice. Buspirone is sometimes used for children who cannot tolerate SSRIs; however, it is much less effective. The starting dose for buspirone is 5 mg orally twice a day; the dose may be gradually increased to 30 mg twice a day (or 20 mg 3 times a day) as tolerated. Gastrointestinal distress or headache may be limiting factors in dosage escalation.

Key Points

  • Children with generalized anxiety disorder have multiple and diffuse worries, rather than a single, specific one.
  • Diagnose generalized anxiety disorder when symptoms cause significant distress to the child or impair social or academic functioning socially and the child has ≥ 1 specific symptoms (eg, restlessness, a keyed-up or on-edge feeling).
  • Relaxation therapy may help; if children have severe anxiety or do not respond to psychotherapeutic interventions, consider anxiolytic drugs (preferably SSRIs).

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Drug Name Select Trade
Buspirone No US brand name

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