Generalized Anxiety Disorder in Children

I would be hard put to imagine any adult not feeling some degree of anxiety in this day and age with all of the threats and negativity that we encounter on a daily basis. I often invite my clients to find just one positive article on the front page of their newspaper and have done so for many years. To date, no one has been able to fulfill that request. As adults may suffer from anxiety that is diagnosable as a problem in their lives, now children are being diagnosed with the same problem as well. It has been found that the diagnosis tends to strike all ages but the most commonly cited ages are from childhood to middle age.

However, the first questions that parents need to ask themselves when they notice worrisome behavior in their children is whether those quirks interfere with the child’s functioning. Dr. Ben Vitiello, Director of the child and adolescent treatment and prevention branch at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) points out the “It’s a fine line, since we don’t have any lab tests. If a child bites his nails but is otherwise functioning socially, it’s not likely to be a sign of anxiety disorder. If biting his nails is all he ever does in a social situation, that’s something else. The same is true for a child who is prone to be aggressive. Can he control it when he has to, or is he unable to stay in school?”

Context also makes a big difference. Parents are extremely frightened about autism these days ~ partly with cause and partly because of the media hysteria and myths about the perils of vaccines. Kids who engage at home and disconnect in day care may be anxious or shy and may eventually be diagnosed with an anxiety condition but autism is less likely. In some cases involving anxiety or mood disorders, it may not be about the welfare of the kids but more the parents’ that is at stake. For instance, the vanity component of parents around who is the prettiest, cleverest and most personable kid who will be going to an Ivy League College may play the greatest part in the expectations that are held out for their child. Then, the parent is looking for a diagnosis for their child when the real issue stems from their expectations.

Essentially children have three early phases of high anxiety ~ at 8 months, 2 and 5 years of age. All are part of the process of learning how to get by in a very big and very scary world. However, all of those anxiety symptoms should pass. Beyond age 5, kids who can’t let go of Mom or Dad (usually Mom) may be experiencing symptoms of true anxiety. I can recall a great number of children in my practice who would not let their mothers out of their sight to the point that they absolutely refused to enter Kindergarten or allow their Moms to go out by themselves or with their husbands. Although the child was experiencing the problem, theREALPROBLEM stemmed from the mother’s creating a life situation for the child that suggested that it was unsafe for them to function independently or were extremely overprotective and induced a fear of taking reasonable risks in order for the child to learn and grow. The solution was usually very painful for both mother and child in that the separation needed to be implemented ~ slowly at first ~ and then more intensively as the therapy progressed.

Children who never run out of ‘what if’ questions such as “what if there’s a fire?” may also be sending a problematic signal. A key test is to determine whether the child eventually functions in social settings or tends to withdraw completely. Anxious kids are ‘velcro kids’ who can’t let go of Mom or Dad for fear of their own or their parents’ safety. In most cases where anxiety disorder is diagnosed, cognitive therapy can help as well as commitment and acceptance therapy, which teaches kids to tolerate discomfort. Exercise helps to relieve anxiety and medication may be prescribed in extreme cases.   In my opinion, though, parents must always be an integral part of any therapeutic intervention whether being seen apart or with the child in order for it to be effective…


Both as a consultant and author, Charles Bonasera’s story-telling have motivated people to change patterns and resolve problems in their lives. All of his books contain valuable, practical lessons that people can easily apply to bettering and managing their lifestyles. He has also written a myriad of articles which can be found on his website at www.charlesmbonasera.com.

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