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Dr. Roy Q. Sanders
Director, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
for Children and Adolescents
for Children and Adolescents
Prescribing psychoactive medication for children is
controversial. However, at times it is necessary to
assist children in controlling problems with mood,
behavior, anxiety, aggression and other difficulties.
As a clinician I have to be convinced that to not
medicate would be more harmful than to proceed
with medication treatment.
Today we will discuss common reasons for
prescribing medications and the specific
medications prescribed for those problems.
Disorders of Concentration,
Attention and Hyperactivity
One of the most common reasons psychoactive medication is
prescribed in children is related to problems associated with
disruptive behavior. In particular problems with
concentration, and hyperactivity.
Choices of medications for these problems
• Alpha adrenergic agonist
• Some antidepressants
There are two basic types of stimulants
Methylphenidate (Ritalin) is one of the oldest of
the stimulant medications used in the treatment
of attention and concentration problems.
In general, methylphenidate is well tolerated and
works well to increase concentration and
attention and to decrease hyperactivity. It works
about 80% of the time to reduce up to 80% of
the symptoms a person is experiencing.
Side effects include decreased appetite, decreased
or disturbed sleep, sometimes headaches and
gastrointestinal pains. At times motor or vocal
tics emerge. There can also be problems with
mood instability and with irritability. In overdose
you can see psychotic symptoms or symptoms of
Problems can also arise with methylphenidate
because of the short half-life of the standard
formulation. Theoretically dosing can occur every
four hours but clinical experience leads to dosing
as frequently as very 150 minutes. There are
other forms of the medication that have longer
duration of action including but not limited to
Ritalin LA, Metadate CD, Concerta, Methylin and
now Daytrana (a patch).
• Focalin and FocalinXR both prescribed in
similar fashion to other stimulants. Side
effects are similar. The difference is perhaps
Mixed Amphetamine Salts
Adderall and AdderallXR.
Mixed amphetamine salts have also been
available in the treatment of attention and
concentration for many years. They are
currently available in generic and under the trade
name of Adderall and AdderallXR.
These medications are very effective in
decreasing the symptoms of poor attention, poor
concentration, and hyperactivity. Their
effectiveness is similar to methylphenidate and
they are very widely used.
Mixed Amphetamine Salts
Adderall and AdderallXR.
Side effects are also similar to those listed
above with methylphenidate but in clinical
experience they are slightly more likely to
create some mood lability and irritability
than the other stimulant medications.
A new amphetamine is Vyvanse a
Dextroamphetamine has also been used for years
in the treatment of problems with attention,
concentration and the regulation of activity
level. Sold under the trade name of Dexedrine
or Dexedrine Spanules.
Dextroamphetamine is effective in reduction of
symptoms at a level consistent with the
treatments listed above.
Side effects are similar to those listed above.
Other Medication Options
for Attention, Concentration
and Over activity
The mainstay of therapy for problems with
concentration and attention is stimulant
medication. While stimulants are very effective
medications there have been problems with their
use because of the relatively short half life of each
of these preparations. Even at their longest the
medications rarely last greater than 8 hours and
often times patients can experience a sort of
rebound hyperactivity once the medication has
A noradrenergic reuptake inhibiter that appears to
have relatively good effectiveness in decreasing
levels of hyperactivity and in helping with
increasing attention, concentration, and
organization. It has been approved for use in
children as young as 6 years old weighing above
forty pounds. It generally has lasting effects
throughout the day and into the evening. Problems
have included changes in appetite and also nausea
along with some sleep problems
Centrally acting alpha
Clonidine and guanfacine have also been
very useful in decreasing levels of
hyperactivity and in increasing attention
and concentration. They are not necessarily
as effective as stimulant medications but
they are effective in a group of very aroused
patients. Side effects are limited to
problems with drowsiness and with
Venflaxamine (Effexor) a mixed serotonin and
noradrenergic reuptake inhibiter that has been
used in the treatment of difficulties related to
concentration, attention and regulation of activity
level with some limited success. Recently,
Venflaxamine has come under increasing scrutiny
because of issues related to possible increased
suicidal ideation and suicidal behaviors in children
and adolescents taking serotonin reuptake
inhibiters. Other problems have included
increased irritability and possible increases in
Buproprion (Wellbutrin) is an anti-depressant
medication that is sometimes used in the treatment
of problems with attention and concentration.
Buproprion can be reasonably effective in the
reduction of symptoms but must be used with
caution in children or adolescents with history of
seizures, head injury or bulimia. (This medication
has also been included in the list of
antidepressants where care as to be given
secondary to fears of increased suicidal thoughts
Tri-cyclic antidepressants have also been used
successfully in the treatment of problems with attention,
concentration and regulation of activity levels. The tri-
cyclics used in children most often include imipramine
and nortrityline. They generally have good effectiveness
over twenty four hours but they can have troublesome
side effects that include a widening of the QRS as
measured on EKG. Also they can lead to drowsiness,
weight gain, dry mouth and constipation. It is also
generally important to check serum levels of these
medications while a child is being treated.
Anxiety disorders as a group are very
common in children in general and are often
misdiagnosed or overlooked if a thorough
history is not obtained. Misdiagnosis can be
of particular concern where medications are
concerned. The wrong medication can
serve to exacerbate symptoms associated
with anxiety and lead to increased
morbidity for the child.
Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors
Since their introduction in the last several years the serotonin
reuptake inhibitors have been the treatment of first choice in the
treatment of anxiety. Fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft),
paroxitine (Paxil), citalopram (Celexa), escitalopram (Leapro), and
fluvoxamine (Luvox). These medications taken as a whole have
been very effective in reducing anxiety and also in decreasing
anxiety related symptoms associated with perseveration and
preoccupation. In general they should be used starting at low doses
for most patients but especially with those diagnosed with pervasive
developmental disorders. The medications should be gradually
titrated to desired effect. Care should be given to look for the
emergence of any agitation or irritability and these medications have
been known to induce mania in predisposed patients. Also added
care should be given to observe for any signs or symptoms associated
with increased suicidal ideation or suicidal behaviors.
Benzodiazepines as a class are excellent anti anxiety
medications. They can be very effective in the treatment
of anxiety related problems in the developmentally
disabled. These medications include but are not
necessarily limited to diazepam, alprazolam, lorazepam,
chlordiazepoxide, clonazepam, chlorazepate, oxazepam,
flurazepam, and temazepam. Problems arise in these
medications most often relate to somulence, difficulty with
short term memory, development of tolerance requiring
increasingly higher doses, and also with the half life and
active metabolites of some of the medications in this class
leading to unwanted prolonged effects.
Buspirone (Buspar) is an anxiolytic that can have
some success in the treatment of anxiety. While
not always successful in relieving anxiety it is a
medication with very few side effects and is well
tolerated. Generally, problems arise from needing
to dose up to three times a day and it has a
relatively slower onset of action sometimes taking
up to three weeks to achieve clinically significant
Venflaxamine (Effexor) is a combination
serotonin reuptake inhibitor and
noradrenergic reuptake inhibitor that has
been clinically effective in decreasing
anxiety symptoms. It has generally been
well tolerated but there have been problems
with sleep disturbance and even drowsiness
on the medication. There have also been
problems with elevations in blood pressure.
Tri-cyclic antidepressants such as imipramine and
nortriptyline can also be effective anxiolytics.
However, they may take up to 4 weeks to work
effectively once an adequate serum level has been
obtained. As when using in these medications in
the treatment of other symptoms, care must be
given to monitor the EKG to insure a QTc that is
within acceptable clinical parameters. Also as
stated above problems with high anticholinergic
side effects can lead to problems like dry mouth,
constipation, and drowsiness.
There are times when anti-histamines such
as hydroxyzine or diphenhydramine are
prescribed to relief anxiety. While these
medications may be effective in the short
run sedating a patient and calming the
“crisis” they are generally not good
medications for long-term use in the
treatment of ongoing anxiety symptoms.
Depression and mood disorders certainly “exist” in
children and often times psychotropic medications can
be of assistance. More controversial currently is the
diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder in a pediatric
population. Great care is needed to ensure an accurate
diagnosis so that appropriate treatment is given,
especially when it comes to medications.
The generally accepted first line of
treatment for depression is the choice of
a selective serotonin uptake inhibitor.
Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors
These medications that were listed above include
fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), citralopram
(Celexa), escitralopram (Lexapro), fluvoxamine (Luvox),
and paroxetine (Paxil). All of these medications have
generally the same level of effectiveness in the treatment
of depression and choices are often made based upon side
effect profiles or the past response to a particular
medication by the patient or a close relative of the patient.
These are generally considered safe and effective
medications although their use in children has not been
Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors
Side effects in this class of medication are
generally related to gastrointestinal
problems, sometimes problems with sleep,
and all generally tend to create problems
with sexual function (in adults) that is
usually related to decreased orgasm but
there can also be decreased desire.
Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors
These medications can also cause problems with increased
irritability and at times they can induce mania in
individuals with that predisposition. Care should be given
especially when giving to individuals with a strong family
history of Bipolar Disorder. Individuals with Pervasive
Developmental Disorders as well can be very susceptible
to side effects of irritability and mood instability. These
medications should be used at low doses and with
appropriate caution. Care also should be given as
mentioned above to issues associated with potential
suicidal ideation and behavior.
Buproprion (Wellbutrin) is effective in the
treatment of depression and in general has
been well tolerated. It has advantages over
the other anti depressants used in adults in
that it is generally accepted that it has fewer
sexual side effects. This medication has
also appeared to be less likely to create
difficulties with inducing mania in
individuals that may be vulnerable.
Buproprion must be used in caution with
individuals that have a history of head injury or
those with seizure disorder or history of bulimia.
These individuals may be at higher risk for seizure
on this medication. Newer formulations of
buproprion have lengthened the half-life of the
medication and this has led to less risk of seizure
in individuals. It still should not be given to
individuals with the risk factors noted above.
Venflaxamine (Effexor) is a combination
selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor and
noradrenergic reuptake inhibitor. It has
been effective in the treatment of depression
and is generally well tolerated. There have
been problems as noted above with increase
blood pressure and there have also been
complaints related to sexual function.
Tri-cyclic antidepressants have long been and in some
circles continue to be the gold standard for the treatment
of depression. These medications while they do have
quite a few side effects in general have been well
tolerated and are effective in relieving symptoms. These
medications include imipramine, nortriptyline,
amitriptyline, and clomipramine. They all work in
varying degrees on the same neurotransmitter systems
that have been mentioned above but each to a different
degree and with a different level of specificity for a
particular neurotransmitter. This difference in
neurotransmitter effect and the side effect profiles of
each allows a clinician to attempt a good match for
treatment with these medications.
All of these medications generally have high
anticholinergic profiles. Side effects are usually
problems with sleepiness, weight gain, dry mouth,
These medications also generally cause an increase
in the time interval associated with the QRS
complex as measured with an EKG. This can lead
to dangerous arrhythmias during the course of
Because of each of the side effect difficulties
listed above these medications can be fatal in
overdose. This is generally not seen with the other
medications that have been listed above for the
treatment of depression. Given that by its very
nature depression can have as a core symptom of
morbid preoccupation and suicidality these
medications must be given cautiously and
Other medications have been used effectively as adjuncts
to those listed above when treating depression. So called
mood stabilizers such as lithium or valproic acid or other
anticonvulsants have been used to try and decrease
symptoms in a marginally responsive or non-responsive
patient. Other medications that have been used with some
effectiveness include stimulants and even thyroid hormone
Adolescent girls, who have achieved menarche, and
women sometimes respond well to adjuncts of oral or depo
contraceptive medications for depressive symptoms.
While medications have been very effective in
relieving the symptoms of depression it should
also be noted that electroconvulsive therapy is also
a very effective somatic treatment. There are side
effects associated with short-term memory
problems and the risk associated with anesthesia
but overall the patients respond well and quickly
to this somatic treatment. Many centers have even
moved to offering this treatment in a day hospital
setting with no over night stays.
Bipolar Disorder is seen in children and while it is a
discussion not within the scope of this discussion it can
often present in an atypical fashion. Determining core
symptoms of grandiosity, racing thoughts or flight of ideas
with increased goal oriented pursuits may be difficult to
discern and features related to irritability and
hypersexuality may be difficult to tease from behaviors of
other disorders or problems.
Medications used to treat bipolar disorder are generally
called mood stabilizers but there are mood stabilizers in
several different classes of medications.
Lithium has long been the treatment
standard in the psychopharmacologic
treatment of bipolar disorder. It is an
exceptionally effective mood stabilizer and
is generally well tolerated. It does however
have several side effects and has a very
narrow therapeutic window making it
potentially dangerous in overdose.
Side effects include weight gain, diarrhea,
acne and less commonly problems with
renal function, possible hypothyroidism,
and cardiac rhythm problems.
Blood levels need to be monitored carefully
and care has to be taken in patients that are
on medications or participate in activities
that would potentially increase the drug’s
Divalproex (Depakote) is also a very
effective mood stabilizing medication. It is
generally used as an anticonvulsant but it
does currently have approval from the FDA
for use as a treatment of acute mania.
Most patients tolerate divalproex (Depakote) with few
problems but there can be side effects. It can lead to some
gastrointestinal problems and there can be increased
appetite with weight gain. Additionally, in women there
has been a correlation between divalproex (Depakote) use
and polycysitic ovaries. There have also been problems
with liver function, bone marrow changes usually with a
decrease in megakaryocytes and subsequently platelets. In
very rare cases critical pancreatitis has been a problem.
Blood levels need to be monitored while the patient is on
divalproex (Depakote) in addition to laboratory
investigation of other systems that might be affected.
Other anticonvulsants used to treat bipolar
disorder include but are not necessarily limited to
Neurontin, Lamictil, Tegretol, Trileptal, and
Topomax. These medications have been generally
helpful in treating some of the symptoms of
Bipolar Disorder. They have been generally well
tolerated, some more than others. They have
varying side effects and require different levels of
monitoring but all are currently part of the
armentareum used for treatment.
Some of the new so-called “atypical” anti psychotic medications
are also being used in the treatment of Bipolar Disorder
especially to treat acute manic phase. These include Zyprexa,
Geodon, Abilify, Risperdal, and Seroquel. These medications
too have been well tolerated by patients but there are some
concerning side effects. While they do not have the risk of
tardive dyskensia associated with them that the so-called
“typical” anti psychotics possess there is still a risk of this
potentially irreversible movement disorder. Also each carries
risk of acute extra pyramidal side effects including acute
dystonias, parkinsonism, and akathesia. All have generally been
associated with increased appetite and weight gain and possible
increase in baseline glucose levels and lipid levels.
Obsessive compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Obsessive compulsive disorder usually responds
well to an appropriate medication regimen. In
addition to medication treatment however
cognitive and behavioral therapies are important.
Also symptoms of preoccupations and
perseveration are not necessarily OCD.
Psychopharmacologic treatment for OCD revolves
around the use of medications that affect the
serotonergic functions in the brain.
Obsessive compulsive Disorder
Any of the selective serotonergic reuptake
inhibitors can be very useful in the treatment of
OCD. As noted above these medications are well
tolerated and possess few side effects. Dosages
used to treat OCD are sometimes greater than
those used for the treatment of depression and
other anxiety disorders.
These medications include the ones listed above,
fluoxetine (Prozac), paroxetine (Paxil), sertraline
(Zoloft), fluvoxamine (Luvox), citalopram
(Celexa), and escitalopram (Lexapro). As noted
above, care should be taken in prescribing these
medications related to recent concerns about
increased suicidal ideations and/or suicidal
behavior in children and adolescents taking these
Clomipramine (Anafranil) is a Tricyclic
antidepressant medication that has a primary
serotonergic action in the brain that has been
used for many years in the treatment of
Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder symptoms.
Side effects with clomipramine (Anafranil) include the
usual side effects associated with Tricyclic
antidepressants. These are anticholinergic side effects that
include increased appetite and weight gain, dry mouth, and
constipation. There are also the same concerns associated
with a widening in the QRS complex as seen on an EKG.
Such a widening in the QRS complex as noted above can
lead to problematic arrhythmias. This medication is also
extremely toxic in overdose and can lead to death because
of the anticholinergic and cardiac side effects associated
Routinely, Clomipramine (Anafranil) serum
levels should be evaluated periodically.
Baseline EKG with routine follow up EKG
should be part of the post-prescription care
given with this medication
Other medications are used to treat symptoms
associated with OCD. These medications include
other medications that help relieve anxiety. These
medications are medications in the Benzodiazepine
class and medications, in addition to Clomipramine,
that are in the tricyclic antidepressant class. There
are at times severe OCD symptoms that seem to be
helped by the addition of antipsychotic medications,
in particular the newer atypical antipsychotic
medications that we have discussed above.
Tourette’s Disorder is a collection of symptoms
associated with chronic vocal and motor tics.
Sometimes these tics can be very complex. In
addition to the chronic vocal and motor tics,
comorbid issues associated with emotional lability
and attention/concentration problems can also be
present. OCD is also likely to be comorbid in
individuals and in families of individuals with
Tourette’s. Both Tourette’s Disorder and OCD
can be the result of a post-strep infection
Medications that have been used to treat Tourette’s
Disorder include medications that inhibit tic
production and also those that decrease anxiety. Of
the medications that inhibit tic symptoms whether
vocal or motor, the most effective group of
medications is the antipsychotic group. These seem
to be helpful because they block dopamine activity
in the subcortical structures of the brain that are
associated with movement. They are generally
quite effective in reducing tics, both vocal and
motor but do have substantial side effects, as have
been noted above.
A frequently used antipsychotic medication in the treatment of
Tourette’s is Risperdal. Just as in the treatment of other
disorders with antipsychotic medications, care has to be given to
monitor for both short-term acute side effects that include
extrapyramidal symptoms of parkinsonism, akathisia, and acute
dystonias as well as longer-term side effects such as tardive
dyskinesia. Additionally, with the chronic use of Risperdal as
well as most of the older so-called “typical” antipsychotics,
prolactin levels are increased and this can lead to difficulties
associated with possible gynecomastia in males, particularly
adolescents, and possible lactation and decreased menstruation in
females. These atypical antipsychotics, as noted above, are also
possibly linked to increased glucose levels in individuals taking
the medication and possible increased lipid levels.
Other Atypical Antipsychotics
Other atypical antipsychotics that have been
used in the treatment of Tourette’s Disorder
include Geodon, Seroquel, and Zyprexa.
The newer atypical antipsychotic Abilify,
would probably also be useful in decreasing
tics in these patients.
Older So-Called Typical
Antipsychotics or Neuroleptics
Older so-called typical antipsychotics such as Pimozide and
Haloperidol have also been shown to be very effective in the
treatment of Tourette’s Disorder. These medications decrease
disruption secondary to tics, both vocal and motor. Both
Haloperidol and Pimozide have substantial side effects. These
side effects occur at a somewhat higher rate than the typical
antipsychotic group. They have been associated with permanent,
long-term side effects such as tardive dyskinesia and at a much
higher rate than the atypical antipsychotics. Older antipsychotics
are also much more likely to have problems associated with
acute extrapyramidal side effects. At times, adjunctive
anticholinergic medications are needed to decrease some of the
worrisome acute side effects of movement associated with the
older antipsychotics. Such medicines as Cogentin, Vistoril,
Artane, and Benadryl have been used.
Other Medications To Treat
Other medications have also been used with relative success in decreasing
tics in patients with Tourette’s Disorder. They also may have some
adjunctive effect in decreasing some of the anxiety associated with
Tourette’s Disorder and in helping with some of the comorbid
symptomatology associated with decreased attention and concentration.
The medications most often used in this particular category are the alpha
adrenergic agonists that are centrally acting. These include Quanfacine
and Clonidine. Both of these are essentially antihypertensives and acting
centrally seem to have some effect on the decrease in tic production. Also
by decreasing the overall arousal level, they seem to have a mild anxiolytic
effect and seem to increase concentration and attention. Side effects
associated with these medications include sleepiness and/or feelings of
being tired, both associated with a somnolent effect of the medications and
their ability to decrease blood pressure. Care has to be given to monitor
blood pressure to ensure that blood pressure does not drop too
precipitously. Usually, patients need to be slowly titrated onto these
medications and then subsequently slowly titrated off.
Other Medications To Treat
These include the anxiolytics that have been
noted above, including but not limited to,
Benzodiazepines, selective serotonin
reuptake inhibitors, Tricyclic
antidepressants, and other more atypical
anxiolytics, including BuSpar.
Psychotic disorders do occur in children and
adolescents but they are not seen as often in
this population as in adults.
Anti-psychotic medications, both the newer atypical
antipsychotic medications and the older typical antipsychotic
medications are the mainstays for treatment of psychosis in any
individual. The medications that are used in the treatment of
psychotic disorders are those that have been mentioned above,
including but not limited to, Risperdal, Zyprexa, Geodone,
Seroquel, Abilify, and the older more typical antipsychotic
medications that include Haldol, Thorazine, Prolixin, Mellaril,
Loxitane, and many others. All of these medications, as has been
noted above, have substantial side effects associated with them,
not the least of which is the possibility of permanent movement
difficulty associated with syndromes of tardive dyskinesia.
In addition to these antipsychotic medications in the
treatment of psychosis. Benzodiazepines can also
sometimes be helpful in treating agitation and irritability
that exists alongside the psychotic symptomatology.
The use of Benzodiazepines such as Ativan, Klonopin,
Valium, etc., can be very helpful in decreasing the
morbidity associated with psychotic symptoms.
Psychotropic medications can be helpful
adjuncts to mental health treatment in
children and adolescents but care needs to
be given to ensure appropriate diagnosis
and follow up by a professional trained to
evaluate and use these medications.
Judicious use in a collaborative atmosphere
is essential to success and safety.