Children, adolescents, and psychotropic medication – for parents and other caretakers
Children, Adolescents and Psychiatric Medication Prepared by: Lee Combrinck-Graham, MD, Carolyn Crowder, PhD, Judith Pentz, MD, and Natalie Sadler, MD
• When your child is misbehaving do people ask you or your child whether he took his
• Has your child’s school counselor or teacher told you that you need to consult a
• Has your child’s school principal told you that your child cannot come back until she
• When your child is sad or upset, do others say that he needs medication?
• When your child throws a tantrum do others warn you that he could have a bipolar
• When your child misbehaves and gets in trouble at school or at home, is her excuse
These are good questions to consider as we navigate an increasingly complicated world
that places demands on our children and teens as never before! Consider this--- we do not
offer our children and teens alcohol to calm them down. There is little research in
supporting this intervention, just as there is very little research with the psychotropic
In the past three decades, the frequency with which psychotropic medication is prescribed
to children has increased significantly. Although psychotropic medication can be beneficial
for children struggling with certain psychiatric illnesses, considering the use of medication
must be done in a thoughtful manner. There are several short and long-term risks of taking
psychotropic medication that need to be considered:
Stimulants (e.g. methylphenidate and dextroamphetamine compounds)
Short-term: decreased appetite, disrupted sleep, weight loss, growth retardation,
irritability, headaches, stomach aches, problems with blood pressure and
Long-term: dependence and mood instability.
Antidepressants (e.g. Prozac, Zoloft, Celexa, Paxil, Lexapro, Wellbutrin)
Short-term: gastrointestinal distress, restlessness, sleeplessness, apathy, lowered
seizure threshold, feeling numbed, feeling helpless and out of control,
Long-term: mood instability and recurrent depression.
Antianxiety or sleepmedications
Antihypertensives (e.g.: Clonidine, Tenex, Intuniv, Clonidine, Tenex and Intuniv).
They are sedating and may also cause severe drops in blood pressure or, alternatively,
sudden rises in blood pressure, if the child misses a dose.
Antihistamines (e.g., Benadryl and Vistaril)
These anti-allergy medications are simply sedating.
Antipsychotics (e.g. Risperdal, Zyprexa, Seroquel, Geodon)
Short-term: sedation, appetite and weight gain, restlessness, some abnormal
movements (Parkinson’s -like symptoms), and metabolic syndrome
including increased cholesterol and lipids and blood sugar.
Long-term: diabetes, chronic mood instability and disability, and possibility of Tardive
Dyskinesia (a disfiguring movement disorder).
Mood Stabilizers (e.g. Lithium, Depakote, Tegretol, Trileptal, Topamax, and Lamictal)
These medications are typically prescribed for “stabilizing mood” or for impulse control
and/or explosive anger. They are often experienced by children as having a dulling or
Short-term: depending on the agent, may cause tremors, electrolyte imbalance and
kidney, thyroid or liver problems, as well as weight gain and sedation.
Long-term: the longer-term consequences of the immediate side effects.
It is important to note that the culmination of decades of studies of differences in brain
volumes in individuals with schizophrenia from non-affected individuals was finally
acknowledged to be associated with the dose of neuroleptics, including the same
neuroleptics that have been increasingly employed as mood stabilizers for adolescents and
even young children. (1) If these agents are associated with shrinking brains in adults, what
effects might they have on the developing brains of children? Importantly, these drugs
have not been adequately studied in children and adolescents.
It is important to consider the underlying message to your child—administering
medication has meaning beyond your child simply taking a pill for negative behaviors. It is
important to talk with your child about why he or she is taking medication. Giving
medication can convey a message to a child that he cannot manage his behaviors or that
there is something “wrong” with him. The implication is that they cannot learn to control
themselves and that there is something wrong with them—that their brain is broken!
Children may be told that they will need to be on medication for life but it is difficult to
predict this at a young age. In most cases, medications cannot cure but do suppress
symptoms. This is distressing and alarming for children and their parents to hear. The
scientific research supporting the broken brain concept is not warranted by scientific
Medication is often a short-term answer for a behavior problem. In some situations it is
necessary, but it is not a panacea. There is increasing awareness and concern about its
potential harm. There are few studies of the long-term effects on growth or the bodies or
brains of children. Many of the commonly used medications are not FDA approved for use
In 2003, the United Kingdom banned the use of all SSRI antidepressants for children under
the age of eighteen, except fluoxetine. Lancet editors stated that the SSRIs were “both
ineffective and harmful in children.” (2) (Subsequent examination of studies presented to
the FDA for approval of fluoxetine suggests that there were exaggerated claims of efficacy
An Australian article in The British Medical Journal observed that the research
“exaggerated the benefits, down-played the harms or both.” They also added that a review
of the fluoxetine trials in children showed that the “evidence for efficacy is not convincing,”
adding “recommending any antidepressant as a treatment option, let alone as a first line
treatment, would be inappropriate.” (3)
A thorough investigation of the effectiveness of antidepressants versus placebo by
Kirschner (4) demonstrates that there is no chemical imbalance identifiable in depression,
and the significant effectiveness of antidepressants is not statistically better than placebo.
Moreover, the chemical effect of the agents that purport to increase various
neurotransmitters in the brain may be detrimental to children and adolescents.
There have been reports of increased risk of suicide attempts when treated with
antidepressants (particularly SSRIs), leading to the Black Box warning on these
medications. (5) The reason for increased suicidal behavior in teens is not understood—is
it due to a pharmacological effect or something else? The question of risk to benefit has
been raised. Some have found an increasing rate of suicidal behavior overall in children
and adolescents associated with decrease in SSRI prescriptions after the Black Box warning
Antidepressants should be started with great caution. Again, given that overall these
medications have not proven to be very effective in these youngsters, these data are very
complicated to interpret. (8) Thus it is important to approach starting antidepressants with
Early research on stimulants has shown that the medications help the teacher with
classroom management but do not positively affect the child’s long-term academic
performance or the ability to socialize and relate with others. (9)
Stimulants do not produce lasting improvement in any area of a child’s life. A more recent
article by the respected developmental psychologist, Alan Sroufe, restates the knowledge
that the effects of stimulants are short-term and come with significant consequences.
Long-term use is common, but it is not justified by positive effects on learning. (10)
Health Canada suspended the use of the stimulant Adderall XR after twelve children died in
the US while taking it. (11) However, the medication was allowed back on the Canadian
market later that same year with changes to its labeling to include warnings against the use
of Adderall XR in patients with structural heart abnormalities. (12)
Research suggests that the increased incidence of the diagnosis of bipolar disorder in
children began with the increased use of stimulants and antidepressants in children. (13, 14)
Whether this is due to the unwanted effects of medication on a changing brain, leading to
emotional instability, or to the “unmasking” of an underlying bipolar disorder is not yet
clear. However, the occurrence of bipolar disorder has so rapidly increased, that it is far
more likely that use of these medications may undermine emotional stability.
Although these observations raise doubts about medication effectiveness and concerns
about potential harm of psychotropic medication, we still live in an era of dependence on
medication. Many parents, teachers, and providers turn to medication to help alleviate
acute problems in children. Furthermore, many parents, teachers, providers, and children
have experienced some benefit from psychotropic medication. For this reason, we need to
be very thoughtful about our approaches to assisting children and families when children
It is good to begin with a discussion with your provider about the concerns that we are
raising in this paper. The following need to be considered:
1) Since the length of time on the medication can impact various hormones, weights,
and other metabolic concerns, are the appropriate clinical assessments and
laboratory studies being done to monitor these concerns?
2) How long will my child need to take this medication? Is your provider willing to
3) Is the person assessing your child willing to collaborate with other providers to
widen the options needed for a more holistic approach to the problems that brought
the child to the office in the first place?
4) Are diet/quality of food/fluids and other life style issues being assessed? Is the
context in which the child/teen is living being considered?
5) Are the strategies in place limited to medication management alone? If so, consider
It is important for all to be aware of these concerns, as there has been media focus about
the necessity of medication for children and adolescents. AND the good news is that there
are treatments that are healthy and effective. These options do not involve psychotropic
medication, or may use minimal amounts for targeted purposes.
These treatments begin with a thorough assessment of the child in context, beginning with
the child within his or her community, family, and school, and narrowing down to the
child’s personal functioning. Assessment must include both the relational and emotional
functioning of the child with family and peers. And it should also include assessment of
what accommodations have been or should be made in response to a child’s specific
learning styles and challenges. Attention should be given to whether there are predictable
routines, such as regular and healthy meals, a consistent bedtime, etc. The child’s physical
health must be carefully assessed including the effects of possible food allergies, nutritional
deficits/ability to assimilate nutrients. A physical exam and pertinent lab work should be
done to screen for any cardiac or metabolic abnormalities or chronic infections.
Fol owing such assessments, there can be adjustments that will make a huge difference in
the child’s ability to get along, ranging from dietary adjustments and nutritional
supplements, to family interventions, to interventions in schooling to improve the learning
experience and help with social adjustment. Be proactive for the health and well being of
1. R. Whitaker: Andreasen Drops a Bombshell: Antipsychotics Shrink the Brain; should
the prescribing of antipsychotics to children be banned?
2. C. Whittington: Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors in childhood depression, The
3. J. Jureidini: Efficacy and safety of antidepressants for children and adolescents,
British Medical Journal 328 (2004): 879 – 83.
4. I. Kirsch: The Emperor’s New Drugs: Exploding the Antidepressant Myth. Basic Books,
5. Olfson M, Marcus SC, Shaffer D: Antidepressant drug therapy and suicide in severely
depressed children and adults: a case-control study. Arch Gen Psychiatry
6. Nemeroff CB, Kalali A, Keller MB, Charney DS, Lenderts SE, Cascade EF, Stephenson
H, Schatzberg AF. Impact of publicity concerning pediatric suicidality data on
physician practice patterns in the United States. Arch Gen Psychiatry 64(2007):466-
7. Gibbons RD, Brown CH, Hur K, Marcus SM, Bhaumik DK, Erkens JA, Herings R, Mann
JJ: Early evidence on the effects of regulators’ suicidality warnings on SSRI
prescriptions and suicide in children and adolescents. Am J Psychiatry
8. Leckman JF, King RA: A developmental perspective on the controversy surrounding
the use of SSRIs to treat pediatric depression (editorial). Am J Psychiatry 164
9. R. Barkley: Do stimulant drugs improve the academic performance of hyperkinetic
children? Clinical Pediatrics 8 (1978): 137 – 46.
10. A. Sroufe: Ritalin gone wrong. NY Times, Sunday Review, 1/28/12.
12. Warren AE, Hamilton RM, Belanger SA, Gray C, Gow RM, Sanatani S, Cote JM,
Lougheed J, LeBlanc J, Martin S. et al. Cardiac risk assessment before the use of
stimulant medications in children and youth: A joint position statement by the
Canadian Paediatric Society, the Canadian Cardiovascular Society, and the Canadian
Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Can J Cardiol. 2009;25(11):625–630.
13. H. Marano: Crisis on the campus, Psychology Today March 2, 2002.
14. C. Reichart: Earlier onset of bipolar disorder in children by antidepressants or
stimulants, Journal of Affective Disorders 78 (2004): 81 – 84.
Resources: Parenting from the Inside Out:How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children who Thrive. Daniel Siegel, MD, Mary Hartzell, M.Ed., Jeremy P. Tarcher. Penguin. 2004.
Please Don’t Label My Child. Break the Doctor-Diagnosis-Drug Cycle and Discover Safe, Effective Choices for your Child’s Emotional Health. Scott M. Shannon, MD, with Emily
ADHD without Drugs: A Guide to the Natural Care of Children with ADHD. Sanford Newmark,
Your Child Does NOT Have Bipolar Disorder. Stuart L. Kaplan, MD.* Praeger. 2011.
*NOTE: Dr. Kaplan confronts the problem of diagnosing bipolar disorder in children, and
offers a ful er way to understand anger, moodiness, and other symptoms that have led
people to use this diagnosis. He does advocate use of medication for some of the conditions
that he believes are mistakenly called Bipolar Disorder.
Anatomy of an Epidemic. Robert Whitaker. Random House. 2010.
The information in this paper represents some of the views of the doctors and
professionals serving on the Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health’s Scientific
Advisory Committee and Board. These views are based on interpretation of studies
published in medical journals, as well as professional experience.
The treatment information found here is not official policy of the Foundation and is not
intended as medical advice to replace the expertise and judgment of your mental health
care team. It is intended to help you and your family make informed decisions, together
with your doctor and/or other mental health professionals.
Your doctor or other mental health professional may have reasons for suggesting a
treatment plan different from these general views and treatment options found in this
Foundation paper. Don't hesitate to ask questions about your treatment options
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