New Guidelines Say Pediatricians Should Screen for Anxiety: Now What?

David C. Rettew, MD


December 20, 2022

Recently the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force issued a formal recommendation that adolescents and children as young as 8 should be screened for anxiety.[1] The advice was based on a review of the research that concluded that anxiety disorders were common in youth (prevalence around 8%), screening was not overly burdensome or dangerous, and treatments were available and effective.

David C. Rettew, MD

While pediatricians fully appreciate how common clinically significant anxiety is and its impact on the lives of youth, the reception for the recommendations have been mixed. Some are concerned that it could lead to the overprescribing of medications. Arguably, the biggest pushback, however, relates to the question of what to do when a child screens positive in a time when finding an available child and adolescent psychiatrist or other type of pediatric mental health professional can feel next to impossible. The hope of this article is to fill in some of those gaps.

Screening for anxiety disorders

The recommendations suggest using a rating scale as part of the screen but doesn’t dictate which one. A common instrument that has been employed is the Screen for Child Anxiety and Related Disorders, which is a freely available 41-item instrument that has versions for youth self-report and parent-report. A shorter 7-item rating scale, the General Anxiety Disorder–7, and the even shorter GAD-2 (the first two questions of the GAD-7), are also popular but focus, as the name applies, on general anxiety disorder and not related conditions such as social or separation anxiety that can have some different symptoms. These instruments can be given to patients and families in the waiting room or administered with the help of a nurse, physician, or embedded mental health professional. The recommendations do not include specific guidance on how often the screening should be done but repeated screenings are likely important at some interval.

Confirming the diagnosis

Of course, a screening isn’t a formal diagnosis. The American Academy of Pediatrics has expressed the view that the initial diagnosis and treatment for anxiety disorders is well within a pediatrician’s scope of practice, which means further steps are likely required beyond a referral. Fortunately, going from a positive screen to an initial diagnosis does not have to overly laborious and can focus on reviewing the DSM-5 criteria for key anxiety disorders while also ensuring that there isn’t a nonpsychiatric cause driving the symptoms, such as the often cited but rarely seen pheochromocytoma. More common rule-outs include medication-induced anxiety or substance use, excessive caffeine intake, and cardiac arrhythmias. Assessing for current and past trauma or specific causes of the anxiety such as bullying are also important.

It is important to note that it is the rule rather than the exception that youth with clinical levels of anxiety will frequently endorse a number of criteria that span multiple diagnoses including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and separation anxiety disorder.[2] Spending a lot of effort to narrow things down to a single anxiety diagnosis often is unnecessary, as both pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic treatments don’t change all that much between individual diagnoses.

Explaining the diagnosis

In general, I’m a strong proponent of trying to explain any behavioral diagnoses that you make to kids in a way that is accurate but nonstigmatizing. When it comes to anxiety, one parallel I often draw is to our immune system, which most youth understand at least in basic terms. Both our immune system and our anxiety networks are natural and important; as a species, we wouldn’t have lasted long without them. Both are built to assess and respond to threats. Problems can arise, however, if the response is too strong relative to the threat or the response is activated when it doesn’t need to be. Treatment is directed not at ridding ourselves of anxiety but at helping regulate it so it works for us and not against us. Spending a few minutes going through a discussion like this can be very helpful, and perhaps more so than some dry summary of DSM-5 criteria.

Starting treatment

It is important to note that best practice recommendations when it comes to the treatment of anxiety disorder in youth do not suggest medications as the only type of treatment and often urge clinicians to try nonpharmacological interventions first.[3] A specific type of psychotherapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy has the strongest scientific support as an effective treatment for anxiety but other modalities, including parenting guidance, can be helpful as well. Consequently, a referral to a good psychotherapist is paramount. For many kids, the key to overcoming anxiety is exposure: which means confronting anxiety slowly, with support, and with specific skills.

If there is a traumatic source of the anxiety, addressing that as much as possible is obviously critical and could involve working with the family or school. For some kids, this may involve frightening things they are seeing online or through other media. Finally, some health promotion activities such as exercise or mindfulness can also be quite useful.

Despite the fact that SSRIs are referred to as antidepressants, there is increasing appreciation that these medications are useful for anxiety, perhaps even more so than for mood. While only one medication, duloxetine, has Food and Drug Administration approval to treat anxiety in children as young as 7, there is good evidence to support the use of many of the most common SSRIs in treating clinical anxiety. Buspirone, beta-blockers, and antihistamine medications like hydroxyzine also can have their place in treatment, while benzodiazepines and antipsychotic medications are generally best avoided for anxious youth, especially in the primary care setting. A short but helpful medication guide with regard to pediatric anxiety has been published by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.[4]


Clinical levels of anxiety in children and adolescents are both common and quite treatable, which has prompted new recommendations that primary care clinicians screen for them starting at age 8. While this recommendation may at first seem like yet one more task to fit in, following the guidance can be accomplished with the help of short screening tools and a managed multimodal approach to treatment.

Dr. Rettew is a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Lane County Behavioral Health in Eugene, Ore., and Oregon Health & Science University, Portland. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook @PediPsych.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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