Generalised Anxiety Disorder: Why Some Children Constantly Worry
Takeaway: Generalised anxiety disorder can make your child worry all the time, become restless, and struggle to concentrate. But merely reassuring her when she’s anxious is unlikely to help. Cognitive behavioural therapy from a trained therapist can teach coping skills to manage her emotions.
It’s perfectly normal for children to get anxious about things from time to time.
Children have a lot to deal with. At school, they’re trying to keep up with academic work and manage complex classroom activities. After school, they’re often committed to sports and hobbies. At home, there’s family dynamics and homework to deal with. And in the remaining time, there’s always poor health, scary world events (like a pandemic), and the future to worry over. With so many variables at play, it’s no surprise that children get anxious about things from time to time.
Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is more than just temporary anxiety. It’s about being anxious about almost everything, all the time.
Children with GAD seem to actively look for things to worry about. For example, they could start by worrying about an upcoming sports tournament but move on to fretting about a sick pet and then about global warming. Most children manage their anxieties to some extent, but those with GAD can’t. They’re stuck in ‘worry mode’, which affects to all parts of their lives.
Children with GAD get caught up preparing for whatever makes them anxious.
For example, your child might worry about not doing well at school. And so she’ll spend all her time studying and preparing for every little test — even if it means abandoning her social life and other things that bring her joy. But it’s not one specific test that bothers her. It’s an overarching need to perform well. And anything less than perfect isn’t acceptable. The trouble is the more she tries to study and be perfect, the more she feeds into her anxieties. So, rather than going away, they get worse. And the stress of this will slowly chip away at her happiness, making her tired, stressed, and irritable.
A child with GAD might seem to be worrying at random, but there’s a predictable series of events taking place inside her head.
Think of GAD as an extended, exaggerated anxiety reaction to things. And children often don’t see these anxieties as being excessive. Instead, they buy into the emotions they’re feeling.
- It begins with a thought. A child with GAD might watch the pandemic unfold and wonder if she’ll get the virus and die. Or she might do badly in a test and think that she’ll do badly in all tests and ruin her future. Or a friend might say something rude and she’ll magnify that into a fear that none of her friends like her anymore.
- The thought triggers a physical and emotional reaction. Physically, she might get restless and irritable. Or develop a headache. Or her muscles might tighten (a tight neck and shoulders are common reactions). Emotionally, she might get anxious, afraid, or guilty. Or she could go the other way and become angry. Younger children will often report the physical reaction (e.g., ‘I have a headache’), but be unaware of the underlying thoughts (e.g., ‘I’m afraid of people making fun of me in class tomorrow’).
- The reaction results in new behaviour. This might mean shouting, throwing a tantrum, or withdrawing completely. She might have trouble sleeping or focussing on things. And often, she’ll get stuck repeatedly thinking through (i.e., ruminating about) the scenario that’s bothering her.
We’re not quite sure what causes GAD, but we do know it has far-reaching effects.
GAD could be caused by faulty brain chemicals or traumatic events. Or ‘worrying’ could be a habit children learn from the people around them. Whatever the cause, its effects can be alarming. Children with GAD will likely start avoiding stressful activities (e.g., skipping school) and obsess over their anxieties. They’ll also strain their friendships and family ties because they’re always talking about their fears or looking for comfort. Life isn’t light and fun for them anymore. Instead, it’s full of scary things that they have to prepare for mentally. If this carries on for long enough, the stress will even change their physical appearance. Older children, in particular, might add to the problem by turning to addictive habits like gaming too much or using alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism.
There’s good news, though. Spotting GAD early can help us redirect your child’s life.
The main challenge is to make the diagnosis. After that, the therapist can use many psychological tools and techniques to help put your child’s life back on track. Only a trained mental health professional can make the diagnosis. She’ll be looking to see how much your child’s worrying has affected her social and academic life. It takes a bit of skill to pinpoint the issue because there are many types of anxiety disorders to choose from — social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, etc. And children with other disorders (e.g., ADHD) might also show some similar behaviours (e.g., restlessness).
One of the most effective ways of tackling GAD is through cognitive behavioural therapy.
There are antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs that are great at counteracting GAD. But even more effective are certain cognitive behavioural techniques. For example, one option is to expose your child to a low level of anxiety and teach her how to deal with the stress. (Perhaps, ask her to finish some homework and then teach her to break the task into smaller steps and be mindful of her anxiety throughout.) Once she’s mastered this level of anxiety, the therapist will up the stakes with something a bit more stressful and repeat the process of teaching her how to cope. In a relatively short period of time (10 to 20 sessions), you’ll see her develop an impressive set of skills to use in life outside therapy.
Are you concerned that your child might be worrying too much? Consider consulting a specialist.
The Ed Psych Practice offers online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges in London. We have psychologists and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356 / (0) 79 9053 8654
- E-mail: Office@TheEdPsych.com
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