Parents struggling to help a child with mental health issues are often conflicted about their options. They may be ready to embrace therapeutic intervention, but often feel ambivalent about considering psychiatric medication for their child.

It’s hardly surprising. While studies show that a combination of counseling and medication is most effective for some children and teens, we’ve all heard stories about doctors who over-prescribe, children who are over-medicated, and the alarming side effects that go along with some medications.

Medication-Use on the Rise


Despite concerns, the numbers show more children and teens are using psychiatric medications than ever before. The National Center for Health Statistics reports that 7.5 percent of U.S. children between ages 6 and 17 are taking medication for “emotional or behavioral difficulties.” There has been a five-fold increase in the number of children under 18 on psychostimulants from 1988-1994 to 2007–2010, with the most recent rate of 4.2 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The same report estimates that 1.3 percent of children are on antidepressants. The rate of antipsychotic prescriptions for children has increased six-fold.

Experts attribute the increases to a number of factors. First, the number of children and teens suffering from mental health problems is on the rise. Currently, one in five young people is dealing with mental health issues, and the number is growing. Since the 1980s the number of diagnoses for ADHD has risen 700 percent and the number of children identified as suffering from depression has risen by 1000 percent. This may be due to both increased stress in children and families as well as better diagnosis of existing problems.

Meanwhile, healthcare providers are more likely to prescribe medications as they face pressure from insurers to choose more economical shorter-term therapy and medication over long-term therapy and demands from parents who want definitive solutions for children who are in pain or showing disturbing or dangerous behaviors.


Unanswered Questions


The decision of whether or not to medicate your child is difficult. There are so many unanswered questions including: Are medications that were approved by the FDA for adults safe for children? How does medication affect a child’s ability to learn emotional and social skills such as stress management? What are the side effects and are they worse than the alternative? How should parents evaluate findings that link antidepressants to increased suicidal thoughts and behavior in children and teens?

At the same time, the research shows that medication in certain situations is the best option and even saves lives. For example, while a relatively small number of children have experienced an increase in suicidal thoughts or behaviors while on antidepressants, many more have benefited from these medications. Between 1992-2001, as the use of antidepressants rose, the suicide rate among children 10-19 years old fell by 25 percent.

Advocates argue that not prescribing medication at an early age can have negative consequences later on for children who lack impulse control, can’t concentrate or are depressed. If brain chemistry is out of balance due to inherited genetic factors or maltreatment, medication can help in gaining control of behavior and emotions, lower a child’s frustration level and facilitate learning.


So, as a parent, what do you do?


When considering medication for your child, we recommend that you choose mental health professionals who do the following:

  • Conduct thorough evaluations, including a review of past and present symptoms, a detailed developmental history, and discuss with caregivers the dynamics of family relationships and social networks (school, extended kin, social services).
  • Take the time to listen to your questions and address your concerns.
  • Have a good knowledge of the latest research, including the side effects and interactions of medications.
  • Consult with a skilled psychotherapist and educate themselves about the benefits of nonmedical interventions.
  • Start conservatively with the lowest possible dose, and uses medications with the fewest side effects
  • Monitor your child’s progress consistently and carefully over time.
  • Are interested in your observations and those of others who are regularly involved in your child’s life such as teachers.


For more information on how to weigh your treatment options and make the choices that are best for your child, contact