Does a Child's Anxiety Qualify for Disability Benefits?

Children with anxiety severe enough to significantly disrupt their daily life can qualify for SSI disability benefits.

By , J.D. · University of Virginia School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney · Seattle University School of Law

Childhood anxiety is a term for a group of mental disorders that are characterized by excessive worrying, uneasiness, or fear. Doctors and counselors typically treat anxiety in children with different types of therapy—such as art and play therapy, family or group therapy, psychotherapy, or cognitive-behavioral therapy—and in some cases, medication.

If, despite treatment, your child's anxiety is so severe that it prevents them from communicating appropriately, functioning socially, taking care of themselves, or finishing tasks, they may be able to get Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments. (Children can't qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance—SSDI—because eligibility for the program is based on an adult's work history.)

How to Qualify for SSI Disability Based On My Child's Anxiety

In order for your child to be eligible for disability benefits due to anxiety, your family must first meet the low income and asset requirements for the SSI program. Once Social Security has determined that your child's family meets the financial requirements for SSI, the agency will—with your permission—start gathering information about your child's anxiety disorder.

Generally, this means asking doctors, therapists, and school teachers for their notes and observations about your child's mood and behavior. Children with mild anxiety aren't going to qualify for SSI unless they have another severe disorder. But if your child's anxiety has lasted for at least twelve months and is significantly interfering with their development, Social Security can award them disability benefits.

Symptoms of Severe Anxiety in Children

Social Security evaluates childhood symptoms according to the criteria of Listing 112.06 for anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. If your child's medical records contain evidence of certain symptoms and limitations, the agency will determine that your child "meets a listed impairment" and award them disability benefits.

The symptoms that Social Security will be looking for can depend on the kind of anxiety disorder your child has been diagnosed with.

Generalized anxiety disorder requires evidence of at least one the following:

  • restlessness
  • fatigue
  • difficulty concentrating
  • irritability
  • muscle tension, or
  • sleep disturbance.

Panic disorder or agoraphobia requires evidence of one or both of the following:

  • panic attacks followed by a persistent worry about additional panic attacks, or
  • disproportionate fear or anxiety about at least two different situations (such as using public transportation, being at school, or crowded spaces).

Obsessive-compulsive disorder requires evidence of one or both of the following:

  • involuntary, time-consuming preoccupation with intrusive thoughts, or
  • repetitive behaviors intended to reduce anxiety.

Children who display excessive fear ("separation anxiety") about being apart from people who they're attached to, such as parents, siblings, or friends, might also qualify for SSI disability under Listing 112.06.

Just having medical documentation of the above symptoms isn't enough for Social Security to award your child disability benefits—you'll also need to show that your child has an "extreme" limitation in one, or "marked" limitations in two, of the following areas of mental functioning:

  • understanding, remembering, or using information (learning and language development)
  • interacting with others (making friends and maintaining relationships)
  • concentrating, persisting, and maintaining pace (like doing chores and finishing homework), and
  • adapting and managing oneself (including maintaining hygiene and avoiding danger).

"Marked" limitations are in areas where your child needs a great deal of help functioning independently. For example, your child might delay putting off chores while they engage in repetitive behaviors, but they'll eventually get them done. "Extreme" limitations are in areas where your child can rarely function independently, if at all. If your child is too frightened to leave the house even with a chaperone, the SSA will likely consider that to be an extreme limitation.

Functional Equivalence and Severe Anxiety

Not all children with anxiety are going to be able to meet the requirements of the listing. But they can still get disability benefits if they can show that their symptoms are functionally equivalent to the listings. "Functional equivalence" means that your child is just as disabled as a child who meets the listing requirements exactly, but that disability manifests itself in a different way.

You'll still need to show that your child has an extreme limitation in one, or marked limitations in two, functional areas. However, Social Security uses slightly different functional areas—also called domains—in order to determine if your child's condition is functionally equivalent to the listings.The six domains encompass a broader range of behaviors, both mental and physical:

  • acquiring and using information
  • attending and completing tasks
  • interacting and relating to others
  • moving about and manipulating objects
  • caring for self, and
  • health and physical well-being.

Children whose anxiety centers around cleanliness might bathe themselves excessively, for example, causing skin irritations. Social Security is likely to consider them to have a marked or extreme (depending on the severity of the dermatitis) limitation in the "caring for self" or "health and physical well-being" domain. Or, children who feel compelled to stack everything they touch into piles of three are likely limited in the "moving about and manipulating objects" domain.

For more information, see our article on getting disability for children by functionally equaling the listings.

What to Do When Your Child's Application for Disability Benefits for Anxiety Has Been Denied

If your child was denied SSI benefits but you think your child's anxiety is severe enough to be disabling, your next step should be to talk to a disability lawyer. An experienced attorney can tell you whether your child has a chance of winning on appeal and, if so, can help you get the medical records, school records, and other documentation in order to increase your odds.

This article discusses how children under 18 can qualify with anxiety disorders for SSI. Once your child turns 18, Social Security will evaluate them under the rules for adults, which are slightly different. To learn more, read our article on how adults with anxiety disorders can qualify for Social Security disability.

Updated April 10, 2023

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