During childhood and adolescence, it’s not uncommon for children to have fears, worries, and anxious thoughts. Whether it’s being afraid of the dark, worries about starting a new school or stressed about an upcoming test, some anxiety is perfectly normal.
For others, however, some anxiety can cause extreme fear and worry that negatively impacts life at home, in school, friendships, and physical health.
“Anxiety disorders are the most common psychiatric condition in youth today, with a lifetime prevalence between 4-20%,” said Adeola Adelayo, MD, a practicing psychiatrist with Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “In fact, we’re seeing more and more kids in the ER presenting with physical symptoms, such as stomach issues, who have undiagnosed anxiety disorders.”
When your child is suffering from anxiety, you want to do everything you can to relieve their suffering and help them thrive. But , what’s the best course of action? Would they benefit most from therapy, medication, or a combination of both?
While antidepressants are effective at treating major depression and anxiety, the decision to medicate your child is complicated. We asked Dr. Adelayo for advice and insight on treating anxiety with antidepressants.
Could Medicine Help Relieve My Child’s Anxiety?
“It depends,” Dr. Adelayo said. “It’s not always so cut and dry. While medication does have its place in treating some anxiety disorders, it’s not going to be a magic elixir.”
Before your child starts on an antidepressant, it's best to have a complete physical examination to rule out any physical causes of the anxiety. Based on your child’s diagnosis, it may be recommended that your child meet with a mental health specialist to evaluate important information such as family history and risk factors they may be exhibiting. Understanding these issues will help determine the best course of action, which may or may not include antidepressants.
“In many cases, children with anxiety disorders find cognitive behavioral therapy, medication or a combination of the two helpful in overcoming their anxiety,” Dr. Adelayo said. “No one treatment method will work on every child—it is all very individualized.”
Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a form of talk therapy that has been scientifically shown to help change certain behaviors and thoughts to reduce anxiety.
What Types of Antidepressants Treat Anxiety in Children?
“Typically, we treat acute and chronic anxiety with a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI, such as Prozac, Lexapro, or Zoloft,” Dr. Adelayo said. “Benzodiazepines, such as Ativan and Klonopin, are typically only used for acute and short-term treatment.”
Like with any medication, your child may experience some side effects, such as a stomachache or headache. Generally, these go away within the first few months of treatment. That said, let your child’s doctor know if your child is experiencing side effects.
Will They Have to Be on Medication Forever?
“Generally, I remind my patients, this isn’t a life sentence, but there is no shame in your child needing an antidepressant,” Dr. Adelayo said. “Sometimes it can be short-term, depending on the severity of the symptoms. Some children are able to eventually taper off their dose until they no longer need it. But follow-up visits are helpful in monitoring their anxiety.”
Be patient, as treating anxiety can take time and the process may change as your child grows. Hopefully, as they age, they can learn to identify triggers and use adaptive coping strategies that work for them.
In general, antidepressants are a safe and effective treatment for anxiety, however, it’s best when combined with therapy, such as CBT. If your child isn’t responding well to therapy or medication, speak with their doctor right away.
If your child is contemplating suicide or self-harm, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for help.