Treatment for Anxiety in Children and Adolescents

The presenting symptoms of anxiety in children and adolescents were discussed in last week’s edition and today’s focuses on treatment in pediatric populations.  Primary care pediatric providers can play a major role in diagnosis, treatment planning, prescribing and, as needed, referring for consultation or specialty intervention.

Treatment options include therapy or a combination of therapy and medication:

  • For patients with mild-moderate symptoms, a therapy approach is preferred, with the option incorporate medication if the therapy is not effective.
  • For patients with moderate-severe symptoms with significant impairment in daily functioning, it may be warranted to consider starting with a combination of medication and therapy.

The key is that therapy is the important component to treatment of anxiety disorders in pediatrics, with medication used as an adjunctive treatment when needed. Therapy to address anxiety can easily be tailored to work with very young patients and is very effective. Types of therapy used include: cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure response prevention therapy, and relaxation techniques, among others.

Medications used to treat anxiety fall into two general categories: medications that treat the underlying anxiety and prevent future symptomatology and medications that treat acute symptoms, such as a panic attack. Medications in the first category include the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), mirtazipine, and buspirone.  The SSRIs are the first line agents. This class includes: fluoxetine, citalopram, escitalopram, sertraline, fluvoxamine, and paroxetine.  Although prompt relief may result, just as with treating depression, the medication may take 4-6 weeks to have full impact, so patience is important.  Also of note, often a higher dose may be needed to fully treat anxiety symptoms as compared to depressive symptoms.

The motto to “start low and go slow” remains relevant to limit activation and thereby increase anxiety during the titration process. So, for example if one is considering prescribing citalopram for anxiety for a 10 year-old patient, consider starting at 5 mg q-day for one week then 10 mg q-day for 1 week then 20 mg q-day and assessing the response. Some patients experience akathisia (internal feeling of restlessness), which can feel like a worsening of their anxiety, if the dose is titrated too quickly. Other side effects include sleep disturbance, GI upset and headache but most of these symptoms are dose related and will resolve over time.

The treatment of anxiety disorders in pediatric patients is mostly off label. Only fluoxetine (ages 7+), sertraline (ages 6+) and fluvoxamine (ages 8+) have FDA approval for treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

When prescribing any antidepressant medication to treat anxiety, it is appropriate to review the FDA black box warning about the increased risk of spontaneous reporting of suicidal thoughts, even if the medication is not being prescribed to treat depression per se.

When prescribing a medication, it is standard practice to first use an SSRI.  If a patient has 2 or more adequate (in terms of dose and length of treatment) trials of SSRIs that are ineffective, one could consider an alternative, either an SNRI (venlafaxine or duloxetine) or mirtazapine, but consultation or referral to psychiatry would be advised in such situations. If there is some benefit from the SSRI, one could consider augmentation with mirtazapine or buspirone. The primary side effects to be concerned with mirtazapine include sedation and increased appetite. Buspirone has an onset of action of about 2 weeks. The primary side effects to be concerned with include: dizziness, fatigue and GI upset. Occasionally the atypical antipsychotics are considered as adjunctive treatment to treatment-resistant OCD.

Benzodiazepines, are rarely used in this population. Pediatric patients can have a paradoxical reaction to them and exhibit behavioral disinhibition. Other side effects include: physiological and psychological addiction, confusion, sedation and impaired fine motor coordination. If a medication to treat acute anxiety is needed, for example for a teenager who has very occasional panic attacks, one could consider hydroxyzine 25-50 mg on a prn basis, which is not associated with dependence. Side effects include: sleepiness, dizziness, and dry mouth.

When feasible, the use of rating scales can help in these efforts by documenting severity and monitoring clinical progress.   A good tool to review, the SCARED, is accessible at. and a broader array of tools is listed at the following website

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