A Guide to GAD Treatment for Children and Teens

What you need to know about helping your anxious child

Izabela Habur/E+/Getty Images.

When your child is struggling with a significant anxiety problem, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), the impacts can be far-reaching. [To learn more about how this disorder commonly presents in younger people, read here.]  

Fortunately, there are treatment options available that can help your anxious child. If detected and treated early, Research has shown that children and teens certainly benefit from early detection and intervention of anxiety.

The benefits are short-term and direct - big, if not full, improvement in symptoms - and long-term and indirect - potential prevention of the development of other psychiatric problems later. 

Treatment for GAD, or lower-grade anxiety problems, is likely to involve psychotherapy and, in some cases, medication. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a structured psychotherapy that has been shown to help youngsters with GAD. Similar to CBT in adults, the approach is structured, focused on the here-and-now, and oriented to provide specific strategies for your child to try at home when anxious. In its child-friendly form, CBT teaches many of the same “adult skills,” but tends to focus more on behaviors than cognitions. This is because the concept of meta-cognition, or thinking about your thinking, may not be easy or developmentally appropriate for younger kids. Skills are taught in a format that relies on child-friendly language, imagery, and games.

With younger children especially, parents are an important variable in the treatment equation. Parent involvement can include:

  • Meeting with therapist intermittently or regularly to help with treatment planning and provide updates on symptom improvement
  • Helping your child remember to do their CBT homework
  • Rewarding “brave behaviors” (i.e., a child’s actions that are in line with specific treatment goals) as your child takes on increasingly challenging assignments from the therapist
  • Reducing your role as reassurance provider, so that your child can learn how to manage anxiety without fearing it or seeking reassurance verbally or behaviorally

Your therapist may also request coordination with staff members at your child’s school, perhaps a trusted teacher or guidance counselor. School is an important environment in which your child can practice new skills, and receive additional coaching and encouragement. Getting school staff involved ​helps send children a consistent message about expectations (and rewards!), and it can help parents to feel less depleted or less alone with the difficult task of helping a child overcome his or her worry. 

While no medication is currently approved by the FDA for the treatment of GAD in children and teens, several studies do support the use of antidepressant medications to treat this and other anxiety disorders in young people.

Depending on​ your child's particular circumstance, medication will be prescribed in a time-limited or open-ended fashion. Medications may be prescribed as a stand-alone treatment, although in youth, they are more likely to be used in conjunction with psychotherapy, if psychotherapy alone has not substantially helped to improve symptoms.

To find a qualified clinician, check out referral resources including Psychology Today, The Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies, The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, or The Anxiety and Depression Association. Or, speak with your current physician about seeking a psychiatric evaluation with a recommended mental health provider. 

References:

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (Fifth edition). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association; 2013.

Mohatt J, Bennett SM, Walkup JT. (2014). Treatment of separation, generalized, and social anxiety disorders in youths. Am J Psychiatry, 171:741-748.

Continue Reading