If your child has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, you may wonder about treatment. Many parents worry about medication prescribed for their kids. Anti-anxiety medication is an option for both children and adults. However, the types of medication used to treat children are different from those for treating adults. Some anti-anxiety medications for adults haven’t been studied in children.
Most doctors prefer to use drugs that are well-studied in kids. And they start with drugs that cause the fewest side effects. Take a look at the anti-anxiety medications available for children, including possible side effects.
You can also learn about:
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs)
SSRIs increase the level of a brain chemical called serotonin. Low serotonin levels are linked to anxiety. SSRIs are commonly prescribed for kids with depression as well as anxiety. Doctors typically prefer to prescribe these for kids because SSRIs are only taken once a day, are non-addictive, and usually have few side effects. SSRI medications include:
Possible side effects: Loss of appetite, weight loss, drowsiness, dry mouth, and nausea
Possible side effects: Loss of appetite, weight changes, gas or bloating, drowsiness, dizziness, nervousness, headache
Possible side effects: Sleepiness, dizziness, headache, gas, stomach pain, diarrhea, weight loss or gain
Possible side effects: Nausea, diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, loss of appetite, drowsiness, weight loss
Possible side effects: Stomach pain, dizziness, diarrhea, constipation, drowsiness, runny nose
Other Anti-Anxiety Drugs
Some anti-anxiety drugs are used less often than SSRIs but can still ease acute anxiety in children. “Acute” anxiety refers to anxiety that is so severe it makes it difficult to carry out everyday activities. This includes panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder after a natural disaster or abuse, or having serious phobias.
Medications that treat acute anxiety include benzodiazepines, which are usually used for short-term treatment of acute anxiety. This class of drugs includes:
Possible side effects: Drowsiness, dizziness, tiredness, weakness, dry mouth, diarrhea, nausea, changes in appetite
Possible side effects: Drowsiness, light-headedness, headache, dizziness, irritability, difficulty concentrating
Possible side effects: Drowsiness, dizziness, unsteadiness, problems with coordination, frequent urination, muscle or joint pain, memory problems
Doctors usually don’t prescribe benzodiazepines for more than a few months. Kids can build up a tolerance to these drugs. Then they need more medication to get the same effect. Doctors need parents to tell them if their child’s dosage becomes less effective.
Another category of drugs that treat acute anxiety in kids is atypical antidepressants. Like SSRIs and benzodiazepines, they balance certain brain chemicals, such as serotonin. However, the effects of these drugs haven’t been studied in children. They aren’t approved for use in kids under 18.
Examples of atypical antidepressants are:
Possible side effects: Upset stomach, vomiting, constipation, diarrhea, dry mouth, fatigue, nervousness, light-headedness, weakness
Possible side effects: Drowsiness, tiredness, headache, stomach pain, changes in appetite, trouble with balance, and tingling in the arms, hands, feet or legs
Side Effects of Anti-Anxiety Drugs
Side effects from anti-anxiety drugs usually go away in the first few months. Most side effects aren’t serious. But it’s crucial to report them to your child’s doctor.
If your child develops rare side effects, such as fever or a rash, or if he seems agitated or depressed, contact the doctor right away. Make sure to contact the doctor before stopping SSRI medication because it can be dangerous to suddenly stop taking it.
Helping Your Child With Anxiety
Before deciding on anti-anxiety medication for your child, it’s important to discuss all the options with your child’s doctor. Weigh the risks and benefits of medication. And ask the doctor about non-drug options like cognitive behavioral therapy to help your child. The right combination of tools can help your child feel less anxious and get on the right track.
If you’re unsure whether your child has anxiety, take a look at signs of anxiety in your kids and teens and tweens. If you have concerns, be sure to reach out to your child’s doctor.
For more information on anxiety in children, including anxiety medication, visit our founding partner, the Child Mind Institute.