NEW YORK (FRONTLINE MEDICAL NEWS) – Of psychiatric issues affecting child development, generalized anxiety is not getting the attention it deserves and is frequently mistaken for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), according to a review of key diagnostic signs and evidence-based therapies presented at a psychopharmacology update held by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

“Pediatricians have an ASD [autism spectrum disorder] toolkit, they have an ADHD toolkit, and they now have a postpartum depression toolkit for moms, but they do not have an anxiety tool kit,” reported Dr. John T. Walkup , director of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry, Cornell University, New York. “So if a kid is 7 or 8 and is inattentive, they have two choices: Either he has ASD or he has ADHD.”

Confusion with ASD is less likely, because there is less symptom crossover, but the differential diagnosis with ADHD is more challenging. For anxiety, symptoms typically peak between the ages of 6 and 12 years. Although the onset of ADHD symptoms, like symptoms of ASD, generally occurs earlier, children with anxiety and ADHD often are brought to the attention of a physician within the same general window of time.

From the point of view of the complaints that initiated an evaluation, “generalized anxiety disorder and the inattentive subtype of ADHD are almost indistinguishable,” Dr. Walkup asserted. He suggested that children who are anxious have difficulty concentrating in class because their minds are “full of ideas, worries, and concerns.” Children with ADHD have difficulty concentrating in class because their minds are “susceptible to distraction,” but the result is the same.

Some children, even those who are only 7 or 8 years old, “can really describe to you that difference,” Dr. Walkup observed, although he said other features can be useful for distinguishing anxiety from other psychiatric disorders, including depression. In taking the history of a child with potential anxiety, key signs include difficulty coping with novel situations, excessive sensitivity to perceived threats, and shyness. These features are less likely to be in children with ADHD or depression.

Once children reach adolescence, social insecurity is more ubiquitous, making this complaint less useful for identifying a child with pathologic anxiety, but here there is also room for confusion without a careful history.

“We see a lot of kids who have social anxiety who get mislabeled as depressed. Socially anxious kids become demoralized, but they do not become anhedonic,” Dr. Walkup reported. In patients who are inhibited with their peers but who do not otherwise report disturbances in mood, generalized anxiety rather than depression may be driving the psychopathology, according to Dr. Walkup, who said this set of circumstances is common.

Once the diagnosis of anxiety is made, both SSRIs and cognitive-behavioral therapy are effective, with response rates of about 55%-60%, Dr. Walkup said. The response rates can climb as high as 80% when the two are combined, particularly when CBT is performed at experienced centers.

With SSRIs, one of the biggest concerns is activation, an adverse event that occurs in up to 10% of patients, Dr. Walkup said. If activation occurs, he advised switching patients to a nonactivating antidepressant, such as duloxetine, nefazodone, or a tricyclic agent, rather than rechallenging them with another SSRI. In his experience, activation on one agent predicts activation on another, but he cautioned against confusing activation with SSRI-induced mania.

“We do see so many kids who get activated on an SSRI and never see another antidepressant again, simply because the doc is afraid of precipitating mania,” Dr. Walkup said. He said mania is a very uncommon adverse event not typically observed, like activation, relatively quickly after initiating therapy. Because of the efficacy of SSRIs for pediatric anxiety, Dr. Walkup advised being slow in abandoning this drug class.

“Antidepressants work extremely well, and SSRIs are the medications of choice,” emphasized Dr. Walkup, who identified atypical antidepressants as a second-line choice in children and benzodiazepines, for which pediatric data are “limited,” as an option further down the list.

However, therapy first requires a diagnosis.

“Identifying anxiety is key,” Dr. Walkup said. “With evidence-based treatments available, there is a need to enhance public awareness and advocacy.”

Dr. Walkup reported no financial relationships.