Drugs & Medications

Anxiety Medication for Children

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10th, 2020

Anxiety Medication for Children

Most experts in the field of childhood development and child psychiatry will tell you that healthy children are often anxious. This is also a matter of common sense. A parent who has had several children can also tell you that anxiety is a normal part of being a child.

However, anxiety in children can also be unhealthy. There are three general criteria that tell you that a child’s anxiety might be unhealthy and needs to be treated. They are:

  • The anxiety is more intense than is usual for a child
  • The anxiety is more prolonged than usual
  • The anxiety happens more frequently than is usual
  • The anxiety interferes with your child’s ability to develop and take part in social activities.

In addition, a child with unhealthy amounts of anxiety will have the symptoms of anxiety. These symptoms will fall into three categories as follows:

  1. Bodily Symptoms: Frequent headaches, stomach aches and muscle tightness. They can also have episodes of a racing heart and shortness of breath.
  2. Psychological Symptoms: Anxious children often worry and have lots of negative thoughts; and they are children that will cry easily.
  3. Behavioral Symptoms: Children who are anxious might resist going to school because they are afraid of being there. Or they might be afraid of going to bed because they are afraid of what they will experience.

If your child shows any of these symptoms you will want to consider seeking professional help and advice. It is now clear that children do develop anxiety disorders, and they deserve to get proper diagnosis and treatment, just as adults do. One of the possibilities in treatment is that your doctor might recommend that your child take a medication.

Children With Anxiety Have a Greater Risk of Having Psychological Problems as Adults

One of the reasons that it is important to get medical help for your child if they appear to be having unhealthy anxiety is that children with anxiety appear to have a greater risk of developing mental illness as adults. For example, childhood social anxiety disorder predicts adolescent social anxiety disorder. Overanxious disorder (OAD) is associated with later OAD, panic attacks and depression. Social phobia in childhood is associated with adolescent OAD, social phobia, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

So it is important to seek help for your child if he or she seems to be overly anxious. If you do, it will help them to avoid having psychological problems in adolescence and adulthood.

What to Try Before You Give Your Child Medications

It is understandable that as parents you might not want to have your child take a medication that will affect their brain and their state of mind. It seems possible that a medication might change the natural course of a child’s development.

Before you seek medical help, there are a few things that you can try at home to help your child with their anxiety.

The first thing to do is to support your child lovingly when they are anxious. You can help your child become comfortable with their anxieties and work their way through them.

Another thing you can do is help your child become more confident around the things that they are scared ot. Without forcing them in any way to confront the things they are scared of, you can support them as you slowly give them safe experiences with the things of which they are afraid.

However, if you find that you are unable to help your child reduce their anxieties then the time has come to seek medical help. And indeed, you doctor might prescribe medications for your child. Let’s look now at the medications that are used to treat childhood anxiety disorders.

What Child Anxiety Medications Are Safe?

All medications have side effects - especially psychiatric medications. But some anxiety medications are safer for children than others.

The medications that are best for children are those in the serotonin reuptake inhibitor class, also known as SSRIs. Positive results can come quickly with the SSRIs. Results are even more positive if the SSRIs are combined with cognitive behavioral therapy.

For example, a recent study found that there was substantial improvement in 80.7% of children who were given combination therapy of SSRIs with therapy. That there was substantial improvement in 59.7% of children who received only cognitive behavioral therapy, and that 54.9% of children improved with only sertraline treatment.

The following SSRIs have been approved by the FDA for use in children:

  1. Prozac
  2. Cymbalta
  3. Zoloft

However, there is a danger with giving SSRIs to children. A study by the FDA showed that children have an increased risk of having suicidal thoughts when they take SSRIs. This is of course alarming. Why in the world would you want to take that risk.

The conventional wisdom in the medical world right now is that the benefits of taking SSRIs far outweigh the risks of taking them. For one, none of the patients in the FDA study actually tried to take their lives. Secondly, the prevalence of suicidal thoughts was low.

If your child is taking an SSRI, you want to keep an eye on them. If your child shows any of the following symptoms, call your doctor right away:

  • Talk of suicide or dying
  • Self-injury
  • Agitation or restlessness
  • New or worsening anxiety or panic attacks
  • Irritability
  • Increasing sadness or worsening of depression symptoms
  • Impulsiveness
  • Extreme increase in talking, energy or activity
  • Aggression, violence or hostility
  • Trouble sleeping or worsening insomnia
  • Spending more time alone

How to Get the Most From Your Child's Anxiety Medication

In general, if your child shows the symptoms of unhealthy amounts of anxiety, try to help them at home first. If that doesn’t work, seek professional help and get your child into therapy. If therapy alone doesn’t help, then ask your doctor to add medication as well. Good luck.

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Sources:

  1. John Walkup et al. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Sertraline, or a Combination in Childhood Anxiety. N Engl J Med 2008; 359:2753-2766

Questions? Comments?

Do you have a specific question that this article didn’t answered? Send us a message and we’ll answer it for you!

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Question:

Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient

Answer:

You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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