What you need to know about teens and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a mental health condition that causes people to have excessive worry. Children and teens with GAD tend to stress over the same problems as their peers, but the feelings are more intense and lasting than the situation might call for. For example, most teens will worry about their grades, sports performance, social status, physical appearance, and their relationship with their parents. But for those with GAD, the distress is so consuming that it affects their ability to perform day-to-day tasks.

Generalized anxiety disorder tends to first present between childhood and age 30 and can have serious consequences if not addressed early on. In fact, that’s one of the reasons that the United States Preventive Services Task Force now encourages screening for anxiety in all children and adolescents ages 8 to 18 years. Fortunately, GAD is a highly treatable mental health condition. Below, we’ve outlined everything you need to know about its signs and symptoms, causes, and ways to cope.

Signs and symptoms of GAD

People with GAD often…

  • Worry about things before they happen. “What if…” thoughts are common thoughts for people with GAD.  
  • Spend too much time on a task because they’re worried it won’t be perfect
  • Seek reassurance or repeatedly ask the same questions in order to feel less anxious.
  • Tend to procrastinate or do whatever they can to avoid anxiety related to school work, chores, or socializing.

Other common signs and symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder in teens include: 

  • Restlessness 
  • Trembling, twitching, or tense muscles
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Headaches, muscle aches, stomachaches, or unexplained pains
  • Irritability 
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Difficulty controlling feelings of worry
  • Confidence and self-esteem issues

Causes and risk factors

Like other anxiety conditions, generalized anxiety disorder is likely caused by a combination of genetic, neurobiological, behavioral, and environmental factors. A health risk is the likelihood that something will harm or affect your health. While you can change factors like diet and exercise, many health risks are out of your control—including family history and age.

Genetic factors

Most researchers will agree that genetics play a key role in the development of generalized anxiety disorder. This means that if someone in your family has GAD, there’s a chance that you will, too. Some research points to a heritability rate of 30 percent, meaning that more than one-fourth of your risk of developing anxiety is based on genetics.

Other studies have even focused on the specific genes responsible for the condition. For example, a 2015 study researching mental illness in twins found that the RBFOX1 gene may be responsible for increasing a person’s chances of developing generalized anxiety disorder. 

Environmental factors

Another factor to consider is a person’s environment. A study from a few years ago followed nearly 50,000 twins for 25 years and found that as their age increased, their heritability risk decreased. Instead, their risk for anxiety became linked to their environment more so than their genes. 

Diagnosis and Treatment 

In the DSMV, generalized anxiety disorder is defined as excessive worry about everyday events that are out of a person’s control on most days for at least six months; typically, this worry causes difficulty in performing day-to-day tasks. 

If you suspect that your stress and anxiety fall in line with a GAD diagnosis, then you might want to consider speaking with a healthcare professional. Typically, your provider will use a standardized set of questions to assess your symptoms and help make an accurate diagnosis. They’ll also collect information about your family, medical, and social histories.

Therapy for GAD

Research suggests that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an effective treatment for generalized anxiety disorder in children and teens. CBT is designed to help a person develop the skills to manage their anxiety and the circumstances that cause it. According to the American Psychological Association, CBT focuses on the connection between thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in three main ways:

  1. Psychological problems are based, in part, on faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking.
  2. Psychological problems are based, in part, on learned patterns of unhelpful behaviors.
  3. People suffering from psychological problems can learn better ways of coping with them, thereby relieving their symptoms and becoming more effective in their lives.

CBT interventions are personalized for each individual, but the idea is that by understanding the why and how of negative thought cycles, you’ll be better prepared to interpret situations for how they truly are. 

Another therapy option involves the whole family. Some research suggests that teens “learn” their anxious tendencies from parents, so family therapy may provide an opportunity to educate the entire family on the condition and ways to cope.


There are several types of medications that healthcare providers will prescribe for generalized anxiety disorder. 

Some people respond well to antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). Although commonly used to treat depression, they’ve also proven effective for the symptoms of GAD. That said, antidepressants can come with side effects, such as headaches, nausea, or trouble sleeping, among others.

Another common choice is an anti-anxiety medication called benzodiazepines. These medications can be very effective in reducing worry and anxiety, but they’ve also been linked to substance dependency.  

As always, it’s best to review your symptoms with a healthcare provider to find the right medication or treatment for your specific condition.

Parenting a teenager with GAD

Parenting a teenager with anxiety can be incredibly emotionally challenging for parents. On one hand, parents can feel hyper-protective of their anxious children and try to protect them from the world. On the other hand, we’ve seen parents push their children too hard and dismiss their anxiety altogether. So, how do you hit the sweet spot? With parent coaching and by slowing down, you can begin to find a good middle road. The uncomfortable truth is that we cannot protect our children from uncomfortable feelings. Our children have to find a way to cope with them on their own. We can, however, gradually expose them to the perceived threat, with consent, and teach them how to have a relationship with their fear.

Learn how Antelope Recovery can help.

It’s common to experience worry or stress as a teenager—however, it’s important to recognize if your symptoms are beginning to affect your work, relationships, and overall day-to-day functioning. 

Our comprehensive approach to teen mental healthcare includes intensive outpatient programming, outpatient programming, family therapy, parental therapy, teen groups, and more. We are dedicated to providing the support and guidance necessary for both teens and their parents to navigate the complexities of GAD and other mental health conditions. If you’re concerned about your teen’s mental health or have questions about our services, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. Together, we can help your teenager on their path to recovery and a brighter future.