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Best Anxiety Medication for Children and Teens

Antidepressants trump all others as the most effective evidence-based choice

Writer: Caroline Miller

Clinical Experts: John T. Walkup, MD , Paul Mitrani, MD, PhD

en Español

We see a lot of the wrong anxiety medications being given to anxious kids because people who are treating them don’t really understand what these children are experiencing, and they don’t know what the evidence-based treatments are.

Anxious kids have a hard time paying attention. It’s not because they have attention deficit, it’s because their heads are full of worry. But their parents and teachers may only notice that they’re having trouble paying attention, and so they get misdiagnosed as having the inattentive subtype of ADHD and put on stimulants. Stimulants will help anybody feel a little bit more attentive, so they will help these kids concentrate better, but they might also have more stomachaches, and often they’re not happy, they’re not comfortable. The stimulants may actually make the anxiety a little bit worse. Plus anxious kids have trouble sleeping, and sometimes the stimulants makes sleeping even harder.

Another type of anxiety medications some practitioners use, because they’re comfortable with it, are alpha agonists (clonidine or guanfacine). These alpha-two agonists calm and lower arousal levels, but they don’t really treat anxiety.

The third group of anxiety medications that we see people using are, believe it or not, antipsychotics. With the scare a few years ago about suicidal behavior on antidepressants, people moved away from the antidepressants and now they’re treating anxious kids with antipsychotics. Now, in someone’s mind that may be safe, but from an evidence-based point of view it’s terrible care.

The Role of Medication in Treatment of Anxiety

Studies show the most effective treatment for anxiety is not medication alone but medication in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. In cognitive behavioral therapy, children and teens are taught skills to overcome their anxiety, rather than giving in to it, and their anxiety diminishes gradually, over a period of weeks. Medication can help kids who are extremely anxious get comfortable enough to participate in the therapy.

Most experts recommend that kids with mild-to-moderate anxiety be treated first with CBT. Medication can be added after the child starts CBT if therapy alone does not seem to be working to relieve their symptoms. But for more severe anxiety, it’s recommended that kids start on medication along with therapy — or even before therapy starts, to help them get comfortable enough to participate.

While medication is not as effective alone as it is in combination with CBT, it is often prescribed alone if CBT is not available or not feasible for the child’s family.

Medications are also frequently combined to treat severe anxiety. For instance, since antidepressants aren’t fully effective right away, a second medication may be added to relieve anxiety during the initial weeks of taking an antidepressant. A second medication can also be added to a fully active antidepressant if a child needs more relief.

FDA Approval

Some medications widely used to treat anxiety in children and teens are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for that use. But that doesn’t mean they are not safe and effective, or that they haven’t been thoroughly studied.

When drug companies develop a new medicine, they are required to prove to the FDA that it is safe and effective for treating a specific problem in a specific group of patients — say, depression in adults. Once the drug is approved, it can also be prescribed “off label,” for a different use and/or a different age group — say, anxiety in children.

The drug company may choose not to seek FDA approval for the drug’s use with these additional disorders or age groups, since the process is expensive. But other scientists may have studied these different uses for the medications extensively, and published their research in credible, peer-reviewed journals. That is the case, for instance, with the use of antidepressants for childhood anxiety. There is a lot of research backing up their safety and effectiveness for kids with anxiety, even though they are not approved by the FDA for this use.

Types of Medication Used for Anxiety

Anxiety medication for children and teens that are commonly prescribed are:

Antidepressants

The clear choice for anxiety medications for children and teens are the serotonin reuptake inhibitors, the antidepressants. Study after study shows those are the medicines that are effective, and they can be extremely effective. With the right assessment, with the right youngster, the use of antidepressants for anxiety can be transformative. And it can happen relatively quickly; in our studies we often see kids better by the first week or two of treatment. They’re not completely well but they’re moving in the right direction, and that kind of response early on generates confidence in the anxiety treatment, makes moms and dads feel a little bit better and makes the kids feel pretty good.

There are several types of antidepressants that have an effect on childhood anxiety. Experts note that if the first antidepressant your child tries isn’t successful in reducing anxiety symptoms — or your child isn’t able to tolerate the side effects — another should be tried. Kids respond to different types and individual formulations in different ways.

SSRIs

Antidepressants called SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are the recommended first choice of medication for treating anxiety in children. That’s because they have been shown to be the most effective, and they have relatively mild side effects. They are also the most commonly prescribed. They work by increasing the amount of serotonin — the most important chemical in the brain that regulates mood.

SSRIs that are commonly prescribed for anxiety in children and teens include:

  • Zoloft (sertraline)
  • Prozac (fluoxetine)
  • Luvox (fluvoxamine)
  • Paxil (paroxetine)
  • Celexa (citalopram)
  • Lexapro (escitalopram)

SNRIs

Another set of antidepressants that work for anxiety are SNRIs (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors). They work by increasing the level of two neurotransmitters in the brain — both serotonin and norepinephrine. 

SNRIs that are commonly prescribed for child and adolescent anxiety include:

  • Effexor XR (venlafaxine ER)
  • Cymbalta (duloxetine)

The SNRIs may be less frequently prescribed for childhood anxiety because they can have a slightly higher rate of side effects, since they work on two different neurotransmitter systems in the brain. Paul Mitrani, MD, Medical Director and Senior Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist at the Child Mind Institute, notes that clinicians usually prescribe an SNRI as a second choice for a child who does not respond to SSRIs, or  when there is a parent or sibling who has had a positive response to an SNRI.

Side Effects of Antidepressants

While side effects vary for individual children, and individual medications, side effects of SSRIs and SNRIs are relatively mild, compared to other medications. They often subside after the first few weeks. Side effects can include:

  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Stomachaches
  • Headache
  • Drowsiness
  • Dry mouth
  • Insomnia
  • Nervousness, agitation or restlessness
  • Activation — increasing irritability and impulsiveness
  • Dizziness
  • Reduced sexual desire
  • Impact on appetite, leading to weight loss or weight gain

Safety

Since 2004 antidepressants, including SSRIs and SNRIs, have carried what’s called a “black box” warning that they may increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior in young people, especially in the first few weeks of starting on them, or when the dose is changed. But studies have shown that “the warning, contrary to its intention, may have increased young suicides by leaving a number of suicidal young persons without treatment with antidepressants.” 

Dr. Mitrani notes that the risk of suicidality is less of a concern when treating anxiety alone as opposed to a child or teen with depression, who may already be having suicidal thoughts. Either way, he adds, it’s crucial for the clinician to monitor for any mood changes when first starting a medication or when increasing the dose, since this side effect will usually occur in the 1 to 2 weeks after the change.

Timing

It takes 2-4 weeks before an antidepressant begins to be effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety, and it continues to become more effective over the first 8 to 12 weeks. The dose is gradually increased until the best dose is reached — maximum reduction of anxiety symptoms without problematic side effects. This dose varies from child to child, so it’s important to always start with a low dose and work up gradually under a doctor’s guidance.

It’s usually recommended that kids continue to take an antidepressant for a year after their symptoms have disappeared (or diminished to a manageable level). This allows the brain to build up the pathways that help manage anxiety, Dr. Mitrani explains, and for the patient to build skills through therapy. “Think of it as a year of practice,” he adds.

When antidepressant treatment is stopped, it should be done during periods of low stress, not when the child might be expected to be most anxious. For example, kids shouldn’t stop taking antidepressants at the start of a new school year or when they first leave for college. SSRIs are not addictive, but a child who stops taking them abruptly can experience withdrawal-like symptoms.

Benzodiazepines

Benzodiazepines are another common anxiety medication for children with anxiety disorders. They are short-term, they can be extremely effective in reducing intense anxiety in youngsters who are really suffering and in distress. But the data supporting their long-term usefulness is very thin, even in adults.

There are kids who are so anxious and uncomfortable and are on the verge of school failure or disruption of the home or something like that where you just really need an acute way to bring down everybody’s anxiety, and in those cases the benzodiazepines can be very helpful. But sometimes they’re a little too helpful, because people begin to like how they feel on them and don’t really shift focus from those medicines onto the antidepressants, which really offer long-term, durable anxiety reduction without really any side effects or problems.

With benzodiazepines you can actually develop tolerance to them, so they might work the first month or two, but to keep them working in the long haul you often have to increase the dose. They manage anxiety, they offer anxiety relief, but they don’t really seem to have that kind of almost curative property that the antidepressants seem to have.

Benzodiazepines given to children and teens include:

  • Ativan (lorazepam)
  • Klonopin (clonazepam)

Benzodiazepines can also be used as a “bridge” medication, to help a child with acute anxiety get rapid relief during the initial weeks before an antidepressant medication kicks in. And they are sometimes used as an ongoing supplement to an SSRI when the SSRI is not working well enough to reduce symptoms.

But benzodiazepines are not appropriate for long-term use in children, because some patients develop dependence, and experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop. Abuse or addiction are a risk in teens and young adults.

Side Effects of Benzodiazepines

  • Drowsiness, confusion, grogginess,
  • Disinhibition (acting out or inappropriate behaviors)
  • Oppositional behaviors
  • Respiratory depression (especially in overdose/misuse)

Antipsychotics

Antipsychotics are a class of drugs originally developed to reduce the symptoms of psychosis — delusions and hallucinations — which can occur in people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. But they are sometimes used to help kids with intense, persistent anxiety.

The antipsychotics most commonly prescribed for anxious children and teens are:

  • Risperdal (risperidone)
  • Abilify (aripiprazole)
  • Seroquel (quetiapine)

Antipsychotics are sometimes paired with an antidepressant, especially in kids with OCD, as they can be helpful in reducing obsessive thoughts. They can be effective in treating rigidity, Dr. Mitrani notes, and helpful for kids with OCD who are stuck with extreme and unrealistic worries and thoughts. 

But they should be used carefully as they can have serious side effects, including weight gain and metabolic, neurological and hormonal changes that can be harmful. Side effects increase as the dose is increased, and some medications have more side effects than others.

Side Effects of Antipsychotics

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Restlessness
  • Weight gain
  • Metabolic abnormalities, including a rise in blood sugar, lipids and triglycerides that increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease in later life
  • A neurological condition called tardive dyskinesia, which is a potentially permanent motor tic
  • An increase in a hormone called prolactin, which can cause breast enlargement in girls and breast growth in boys
  • Decreased emotional expression
  • A cardiovascular event

Alpha Agonists

The medications called alpha agonists were originally developed to lower high blood pressure in adults. But they were also found to reduce symptoms of anxiety by acting on the sympathetic nervous system, which regulates the body’s fight-or-flight response. As Dr. Mitrani puts it, “They can reduce the sensitivity of the body’s alarm system so it does not go off as frequently or as intensely.”

The alpha-agonists prescribed for anxiety in children and teens include:

  • Catapres, Kapvay (clonidine or guanfacine)
  • Tenex, Intuniv (guanfacine)

Some families of children with anxiety choose them over antidepressants, which are more effective in combatting anxiety, because of the black box warning for increased risk of suicidality associated with antidepressants.

Side Effects of Alpha Agonists

  • Sleepiness
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Stomach pain
  • Vomiting

Blood pressure should be monitored in kids who take clonidine or guanfacine as they can lower blood pressure.

Atypical Anxiolytics

Buspirone (Buspar) is another anti-anxiety medication for children. It works by activating a certain type of receptor in the brain to affect the balance of neurotransmitters. Buspar is not as effective in curbing anxiety as benzodiazepines, but it has significantly fewer side effects and a lower potential for dependence or abuse. That makes it appropriate for longer-term use.

Side Effects of Atypical Anxiolytics

  • Sedation
  • Spaciness or confusion
  • Disinhibition
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Nervousness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Excitement
  • Trouble sleeping

Buspar takes 1 to 2 weeks to work, and 4 to 6 weeks to get to its full effectiveness.

Antihistamines

Antihistamines are medications primarily used to reduce allergic reactions. They do that by blocking the receptors for chemicals called histamines in the central nervous system. But they also block some serotonin receptors, which increases serotonin levels and creates a sedative effect. Some clinicians recommend them to reduce anxiety in children and teens for short periods of time. They work quickly, can help extremely anxious kids calm down, and are non-addictive when taken as directed.

Antihistamines used for anxiety include:

  • Benadryl (diphenhydramine)
  • Atarax, Vistaril (hydroxyzine) 

Side Effects of Antihistamines

  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Dry mouth
  • Urinary retention
  • Blurred vision
  • Confusion
  • Irritability
  • Headache

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the best medication for anxiety in kids?

The best medications for anxiety in kids are antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs.

What is the best SSRI for child anxiety?

Several effective SSRIs for childhood anxiety include:

  • Zoloft (sertraline)
  • Prozac (fluoxetine)
  • Paxil (paroxetine)
  • Celexa (citalopram)
  • Lexapro (escitalopram)
What options are available for giving a child relief from anxiety?

Medication: SSRIs are a common first-choice medication. Other medications might be used depending on the situation.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): Teaches children skills to manage anxiety and gradually reduce it over time.

Short-term use of antihistamines: Can help calm very anxious children in the short term.

What are the FDA-approved medications for treating pediatric anxiety?

Some medications widely used to treat anxiety in children are not approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for that use. However, extensive research often supports their safety and effectiveness in treating anxiety, even without formal FDA approval.

It’s important to speak with a doctor to understand the risks and benefits of any medication for a child.

What is the best way to treat anxiety in kids and teens?

The very best way to treat anxiety in kids and teens is with a combination of antidepressant medication and cognitive behavioral therapy. Medication can help kids who are extremely anxious get comfortable enough to participate in therapy, which teaches them skills to overcome anxiety. 

What medication can a child take for occasional anxiety?

Medications children can take for occasional anxiety are called benzodiazepines. They are best used to reduce anxiety in specific situations, like flying on a plane or going to the doctor. They reduce physical symptoms of anxiety, such as rapid heartbeat, trembling, and sweating.  

Is Prozac a good treatment for anxiety in kids?

Commonly prescribed SSRIs for anxiety in kids include Zoloft (sertraline), Prozac (fluoxetine), Luvox (fluvoxamine), Paxil (paroxetine), Celexa (citalopram) and Lexapro (escitalopram).

This article was last reviewed or updated on June 17, 2024.