FFFPsychiatric Medication For Children And Adolescents Part I - How Medications Are Used

No. 21; Updated July 2017

Medication can be an effective part of the treatment for several psychiatric disorders of childhood and adolescence. A doctor's recommendation to use medication often raises many concerns and questions in both the parents and the youngster. The physician who recommends medication should have experience treating psychiatric illnesses in children and adolescents. He or she should fully explain the reasons for recommending medication, what benefits the medication should provide, as well as possible risks, adverse effects, and other treatment alternatives.

Psychiatric medication should not be used alone. The use of medication should be based on a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation and be one part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

Before recommending any medication, the child and adolescent psychiatrist interviews the youngster and makes a thorough diagnostic evaluation. In some cases, the evaluation may include a physical exam, psychological testing, laboratory tests, other medical tests such as an electrocardiogram (EKG) or electroencephalogram (EEG), and consultation with other medical specialists.

Psychiatric medication should be used as part of a comprehensive plan of treatment, with ongoing medical assessment and, in most cases, individual and/or family psychotherapy. When prescribed appropriately by a child and adolescent psychiatrist or prescriber trained in children's mental health, and taken as prescribed, medication may reduce or eliminate troubling symptoms and improve the daily functioning of children and adolescents with psychiatric disorders. Medications which have beneficial effects may also have side effects, ranging from mildly annoying to very serious. Because each youngster is different and may respond differently to medication, close contact with the treating physician is recommended. Do not stop or change a medication without speaking to your child's doctor.

Medication may be prescribed for psychiatric symptoms and disorders, including, but not limited to:

  1. Bedwetting-if it persists regularly after age 5 and causes serious problems in low self-esteem and social interaction.
  2. Anxiety (school refusal, phobias, separation or social fears, generalized anxiety, or posttraumatic stress disorders)-if it keeps the youngster from normal daily activities.
  3. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)-marked by a short attention span, trouble concentrating, and restlessness. The child is easily upset and frustrated, often has problems getting along with family and friends, and usually has trouble in school.
  4. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)-recurring obsessions (troublesome and intrusive thoughts) and/or compulsions (repetitive behaviors or rituals such as handwashing, counting, or checking to see if doors are locked) that interfere with a youngster's daily functioning.
  5. Depression-lasting feelings of sadness, helplessness, hopelessness, unworthiness, guilt, inability to feel pleasure, a decline in school work, and changes in sleeping and eating habits.
  6. Eating disorder-either self-starvation (anorexia nervosa), binge eating and vomiting (bulimia), or a combination of the two.
  7. Bipolar (manic-depressive) disorder-periods of depression alternating with manic periods, which may include irritability, "high" or happy mood, excessive energy, behavior problems, staying up late at night, and grand plans.
  8. Psychosis-symptoms include irrational beliefs, paranoia, hallucinations (seeing things or hearing sounds that don't exist), social withdrawal, clinging, strange behavior, extreme stubbornness, persistent rituals, and deterioration of personal habits. Psychosis may be seen in developmental disorders, severe depression, schizoaffective disorder, or schizophrenia.
  9. Autism spectrum disorders-characterized by severe deficits in social interactions, language, and/or thinking or ability to learn, and usually diagnosed in early childhood.
  10. Severe aggression-which may include assaultive behavior, excessive property damage, or prolonged self-abuse, such as head-banging or cutting.
  11. Sleep problems-symptoms can include insomnia, night terrors, sleep walking, fear of separation, or anxiety.

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The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) represents over 10,000 child and adolescent psychiatrists who are physicians with at least five years of additional training beyond medical school in general (adult) and child and adolescent psychiatry.

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