Does a Child's Anxiety Qualify for Disability Benefits?

Only children with very severe anxiety will be approved for SSI disability benefits.

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Childhood anxiety is a general term given to a group of mental disorders that are characterized by excessive worrying, uneasiness, or fear. Some specific anxiety disorders include generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Treatment of childhood anxiety disorders may include different types of therapy (art and play therapy, family or group therapy, psychotherapy, or cognitive–behavioral therapy) and, in some cases, medication.

Children who are from low-income families and whose anxiety is so severe that it prevents them from communicating appropriately, functioning socially, taking care of themselves, and/or focusing and completing tasks may be able to get SSI payments. This article discusses the rules about qualifying children with anxiety disorders for SSI. The rules for adults are different. To read about adults, read our article on how adults with anxiety disorders can qualify for Social Security disability.

Qualifying for SSI Disability

If your child has mild anxiety, she is not going to qualify for SSI. Social Security has a listing for childhood anxiety disorders that sets out the criteria for how severe a child's symptoms must be to qualify for SSI. To meet the listing, a child with an anxiety disorder must have medical documentation of one of the following:

  • excessive anxiety about separation from a parent (or parent substitute)

  • excessive and continuous avoidance of strangers
  • excessive and continuous anxiety accompanied by symptoms like tensing muscles, racing heart, sweating, lightheadedness, upset stomach, or being overly alert to dangers
  • a persistent and irrational fear of something that results in a compelling desire to avoid the thing
  • severe panic attacks, recurring on average once a week
  • recurrent obsessions or compulsions that cause the child severe distress, or
  • recurring recollections of a traumatic experience, including dreams, that cause the child severe distress.

In addition, to meet the listing, a child must satisfy additional criteria based on the child’s age.

Criteria for Children from Ages One to Three

For children ages one through three, there must be evidence that the anxiety is causing a significant developmental delay, either in fine or gross motor skills, cognitive or communicative function, or social function. By cognitive and communicative function, Social Security means your child's intellectual and language development. By social function, Social Security means the development of the child's relatedness to people and objects, including factors like bonding and stranger anxiety. For all three of these areas, Social Security will be looking for the results of particular screening tools and tests that the child's doctor will use in assessing and treating the child.

A delay in one of these areas will satisfy the listing if it results in the child showing a developmental level that is no more than half the child’s chronological age. So, for example, if your two-year-old daughter has the social function of a one-year old, and the delay is caused by her anxiety, then she satisfies this criteria.

If your child has delays in two or three of the areas (motor skills, cognitive/communicative function, and social function), then the child need only show that she is functioning at no more than two-thirds of her chronological age in these areas. So, for example, if your two-year old daughter has the social function and cognitive/communicative function of a 16-month-old, and the delays are caused by her anxiety disorder, then she satisfies this criteria.

Criteria for Children from Ages Three to Eighteen

For children between ages three and eighteen to meet the listing, they must show "marked" impairments in at least two of the following areas:

  • age-appropriate cognitive and communicative functioning (intelligence and language development)
  • age-appropriate social functioning (capacity to form and maintain relationships)
  • age-appropriate personal functioning (ability to take care of one’s own health and safety), and/or
  • maintaining concentration, persistence, and pace

Social Security defines a marked impairment as one that is more than moderate but less than extreme and one that seriously interferes with the child’s ability to function. Where it is possible, Social Security will be looking for objective medical evidence of your child’s impairments, so medical records and standardized testing will be important to show that your child’s impairments are severe enough to qualify for SSI.

If your child was denied SSI benefits but you feel your child's anxiety rises to the level of a disability, your next step should be to talk to a disability lawyer. A lawyer with experience with SSI claims can tell you whether your child's claim has a chance of winning on appeal, and if so, can help you get the medical and school records and other documentation to make that happen. You can use Nolo's lawyer directory to find a lawyer in your area who practices Social Security disability.

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