Is Anxiety Medication Safe for Teens?

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All teens experience nervousness sometimes. Feeling nervous before a date, worrying about an exam, and experiencing nerves before a big presentation is normal. But sometimes, teens experience so much anxiety that it impairs their daily functioning.

Parents of anxious teenagers—as well as the teens themselves—are often desperate for help. How do you know when the anxiety rises to the level of requiring treatment? Or maybe you have concerns about whether anxiety medication is safe for this age group.

We cover a few ways to tell when teen anxiety treatment may be necessary for teens. We also provide information about anxiety medication for teens, its potential side effects, and medication-related safety warnings.

When to Seek Teen Anxiety Treatment

There are many different types of teen anxiety, some of which include:

Anxiety becomes problematic when it affects a teen’s social, occupational, or educational functioning. Here are a few examples of when a teen's anxious feelings may benefit from anxiety treatment:

  • The teen thinks everyone is always staring at them. As a result, they refuse to eat lunch in the cafeteria and avoid talking in class.
  • The teen survived a near-fatal car accident on a rainy evening. Several months later, they continue to have nightmares and flashbacks. They also refuse to get in a car when it’s raining.
  • The teen has started experiencing panic attacks. They're worried a panic attack will happen at school, so they've started refusing to go.

Approximately 60% of young people with an anxiety disorder don’t get treatment. The issue with this high percentage is that anxiety is treatable. Along with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—also known as talk therapy—one of the other effective teen anxiety treatments is medication.

Using Medication to Treat Anxiety

Prescription medications can be useful in the treatment of anxiety disorders. They are also often used in conjunction with CBT.

Research studies show that a combination of CBT and medication work better for children than either treatment alone. That said, when teens have mild to moderate functional impairments, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends deferring the use of medication.

As with all medications, prescriptions used to treat anxiety have risks. They are prescribed, however, when a physician thinks that the benefits offered by the medication outweigh those risks.

Types of Anxiety Medications for Teens

It can be challenging to find the right anxiety medication that will work for your teen. Here are a few that a physician may prescribe.

SSRIs and SNRIs

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed medication for anxiety in children and teens. They improve mood by blocking the reabsorption of serotonin—a neurotransmitter that helps regulate fear, worry, and stress—in the brain.

Common SSRIs used to treat anxiety disorders in teens include:

Serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) may be prescribed if SSRIs don't have the desired effect. Like SSRIs, SNRIs impact neurotransmitters in the brain. They block the reabsorption of serotonin and norepinephrine. SNRIs may include medications such as Cymbalta (duloxetine) and Effexor XR (venlafaxine).

It can take up to 8 weeks for these types of medications to work. If the teen tolerates the medication well and hasn't received the results desired, the dosage may be increased after several weeks.

Benzodiazepines

Although SSRIs and SNRIs are most commonly used to treat anxiety in teens, other prescriptions may be used as well. Benzodiazepines are the second most commonly used medications and may be prescribed to teens with severe anxiety.

Medications in this category include:

Benzodiazepines are usually short-term treatments and are less commonly prescribed because they carry some additional risks. For example, teens may grow dependent on them and benzodiazepines may be misused. Stopping them suddenly could also lead to withdrawal symptoms or even seizures.

Other Medications

Occasionally, physicians may prescribe other medications to treat anxiety. This might include prescribing drugs such as antihistamines, non-SSRI antidepressants, hydroxyzine, or atypical antipsychotics. The exact medication prescribed can vary based on the teen's diagnosis, the severity of the anxiety, and other factors.

Side Effects of SSRIs and SNRIs

Many teens don’t experience side effects when taking SSRIs or SNRIs. Those that do often find that the effects are mild and usually go away within the first few weeks of treatment.

The most common side effects of SSRI and SNRI anxiety medications for teens include:

  • Dizziness
  • Dry mouth
  • Excessive sweating
  • Headache
  • Nausea

Other possible side effects may include:

  • Changes in sexual function
  • Constipation
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Tiredness

Parents and physicians should discuss potential side effects with teens so they know what to expect and can report any side effects they are experiencing. If one medication isn’t working or causing serious side effects, your teen may need to change medications.

FDA Warnings

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning in 2004 that antidepressant medications often used to treat adolescent anxiety (such as many SSRIs and SNRIs) may increase suicidal thoughts and behavior in a small number of children and adolescents.

No suicides were reported in the studies that led to the warnings. However, in clinical trials, the rate of suicidal thinking or suicidal behavior was 4% among patients receiving an antidepressant compared with 2% receiving a placebo.

Research shows that warnings against antidepressant use for teens may have actually backfired. Prior to the FDA warnings (1990-2002), suicide deaths decreased substantially. Following the warnings (2005-2017), there was an abrupt decline in treatments, yet suicide deaths increased markedly.

To address this concern, a black box warning was added to these medications. Critics of this warning fear that some children and teens may not get the help they need for fear that the medications are unsafe. To combat the added risk for adolescents, parents and teens are educated about the potential risks, and teens are monitored closely with frequent appointments.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

A Word From Verywell

If your teen is struggling with anxiety, consult a healthcare provider. Describe your concerns and ask about treatment options. While some primary care physicians and pediatricians feel comfortable prescribing anti-anxiety medications to teens, others may refer children to a psychiatrist.

Psychiatrists are specialist physicians who treat mental health disorders. If you have concerns about your teen’s diagnosis or treatment plan, seek a second opinion. Talking to another professional can help you decide on the best course of action.

Always educate yourself about any medications your child is taking. Read the handouts, ask questions, and talk to the prescribing doctor and pharmacist. Monitor your teen’s compliance with taking the medication, and make sure they're taking it as prescribed. Skipping doses or doubling up on pills could be harmful.

Attend your teen’s appointments. Talk to the doctor about any concerns you have and learn about your teen’s progress. With the right treatment and monitoring, teens can find relief from anxiety.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What medications are prescribed for teen anxiety?

    The most common type of medication prescribed for teen anxiety is selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Other anxiety medication options for teens include benzodiazepines, non-SSRI antidepressants, hydroxyzine, and atypical antipsychotics. The teen's doctor will decide the best medication based on their symptoms, condition, and the severity of their anxiety.

  • Are there any natural medications for teens with anxiety?

    The answer to this question is not quite clear. Some herbal remedies have been found to help treat anxiety. However, many of these studies have been conducted only on adult subjects. A 2018 study involving 80 teens did find that those taking a saffron extract for eight weeks had greater improvements in their anxiety than a control group. But researchers also noted that these effects were not necessarily corroborated by the teens' parents. Consult a healthcare provider before trying to treat their anxiety with natural medications or products.

  • How do you know if your teen has anxiety?

    Signs of teen anxiety include excessively worrying, continuous nervousness, and restlessness. You may also notice that the teen is withdrawn or uncomfortable in social situations. Teen anxiety can sometimes manifest physically, appearing in the form of muscle cramps, stomach issues, headaches, and fatigue. An anxious teen may even sweat, tremble, or startle easily.

  • How do I know if my teen needs anxiety medication?

    If your teen's anxiety is impacting their everyday life, they may benefit from anxiety medication. It's also beneficial to recognize the difference between normal anxiety and a potential anxiety disorder. Signs of an anxiety disorder in teens that may benefit from anxiety medications include anxiety that begins before puberty, anxiety in situations that wouldn't normally provoke anxious feelings, unexplained physical symptoms, consistent anxiety symptoms, and avoidance of certain situations.

  • How do I help a teen with anxiety and ADHD?

    Roughly three in 10 kids with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) also have anxiety. If your teen has this dual diagnosis, both medication and behavioral treatment can help. Talk to a healthcare provider about the options best suited for them based on their anxiety type and severity. Talking to the teen's school may also help, such as getting them support both in and out of the classroom.

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