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. The listing was changed significantly in 2017.

Required Symptoms

To meet the new listing, which applies to applications filed after January 27, 2017, a child with an anxiety disorder must have medical documentation of one of the following sets of symptoms:

  • generalized anxiety characterized by:
    • difficulty concentrating
    • sleep disturbance
    • being easily tired
    • restlessness
    • irritability, or
    • muscle tension.
  • panic disorder characterized by:
    • panic attacks followed by a persistent worry about additional panic attacks, or
    • disproportionate fear about being in two or more situations (such as being outside the home, being at school, being in a crowd).
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder characterized by:
    • preoccupation with unwelcome thoughts, or
    • repetitive behaviors aimed at reducing anxiety.
  • excessive anxiety or fear about separation from a parent (or parent substitute).

Required Functional Limitations

In addition, to meet the listing, a child must show that the anxiety limits the child's functioning. Specifically, the child must have an extreme limitation in one of the following areas or severe limitations in two of the following areas:

  • understanding, remembering, or using information (learning and language development)
  • age-appropriate social functioning (the capacity to form and maintain relationships)
  • age-appropriate ability to regulate one's behavior and manage oneself, and/or
  • ability to engage in activities at a consistent pace, avoid distractions, and complete tasks in timely manner.

Where it is possible, Social Security will be looking for objective medical evidence of your child's impairments, so medical records and standardized tests may be important to show that your child's impairments are severe enough to qualify for SSI.

When a Child Has Made a Marginal Adjustment But Is Fragile

"Marginal adjustment" means that the child's adaptation to the requirements of daily life is fragile. The child's condition may have improved such that he or she no longer has severe or extreme limitations in functioning, but the child has minimal capacity to adapt to changes in their environment, or to demands that are not already part of their daily life. In some cases, past changes or increased demands may have caused an exacerbation of the child's anxiety or led to a deterioration in the child's functioning. This may have led to a change in medication or other treatment or caused the child to be hospitalized or absent from school.

In this case, the child doesn't have to show that he or she currently has the severe limitations required above. But the child's condition must be "serious and persistent" that is, there must be a medically documented history of anxiety over a period of at least two years. The child must also be receiving ongoing medical treatment or mental health therapy that reduces the symptoms of anxiety.

After a Denial

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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