When it comes to giving your child psychiatric medication, it’s easy for your feelings to run all over the map.
You might feel like you just don’t want to give a psychiatric medication to your child. Or you might be searching for a medication that will help your child and haven’t been able to find the right one. Maybe you’re worried about side effects. Other people might be telling you that your child doesn’t need medication. And you don’t know what to think – you just want your child to get help.
How do you know what to do, how to decide if your child needs medication, and which medication your child should take?
You are not alone in asking these questions. About 1 in 5 children will have a mental health condition at some point, so many other parents ask these questions, too. We’ve worked with other parents to put together the ideas on this page so that you can start to find the answers for your child and family.
Understanding Psychiatric Medication for Children
Psychiatric medications can help with things like: mood swings, anxiety, focus and attention challenges, and depression. NAMI offers a list of common mental health medications that you can review.
Here are some key facts about psychiatric medications:
- Finding the right medication for your child might take time. You might get the right one on the first try, or it might take many tries to find the right one. What is right for your child might change as they grow and develop.
- Many psychiatric medications that the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has approved for adults have not necessarily been approved for children. Doctors may prescribe them differently than the FDA guidelines. This is called “off-label use.” In most cases, there has been some testing to support an off-label use, but it may not be as much testing as it would take for approval.
- Medications may have side effects. These are different from person to person, and sometimes different in children versus adults. Let your child’s school and caregivers know what medications they are taking to help you watch for side effects.
- Some psychiatric medications are only used for a short time, along with therapy that helps a child understand their thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Others may be used for a longer time, possibly even for life.
- If your child stops taking medication because they are feeling better and don’t think they need it anymore, their mental health might be in danger. Talk to your child’s doctor before stopping any medication. And watch out for the symptoms listed on our When to Get Mental Health Help for Children page.
- Your child might get a prescription for psychiatric medications from a neurologist, a psychiatrist, a primary care doctor, or a nurse practitioner – learn more about types of providers on our Types of Health-Care Specialty and Therapy Options. It is very important that all your child’s doctors, nurses, and therapists are working together and know all of your child’s different medications, symptoms, and diagnoses so that they don’t prescribe medications that will conflict with each other. It’s important to ask how any new prescription works with your child’s other medications.
- It might be helpful to have a medical home where a main doctor or central team can keep track of all your child’s other doctors, therapists, and treatments. Along with this, you can organize your child’s medical records in an up-to-date care notebook to keep everything in one place.
To Medicate or Not to Medicate?
Sometimes the answer to this question is obvious. Other times, it isn’t. Or the answer changes as your child grows up, hits different developmental points, and their mental health needs change. And sometimes mental health conditions aren’t treated with medication at all.
Here are questions that you can ask yourself and your child’s doctor:
- What does your child think about taking psychiatric medication?
- What do your child’s doctors and therapists think about your child taking psychiatric medication?
- Are there other ways of managing your child’s symptoms? What would it take to have these in place as much as your child needs them? These could include therapy, mentoring, diet, exercise, or classroom accommodations.
- What are your biggest fears about having your child take medication?
- What risks does your child face by taking psychiatric medications? Like side effects or interactions with other medications they take.
- What risks does your child face if their mental health condition isn’t treated with medication?
- Is this a medication your child can try out for a little while to see how it works?
Your family, friends, and your child’s teachers might have important ideas for you as you try to answer the medication question. But they might not understand what your child and family is going through as well as you do. In the end, this is a family decision that you should make with your child and your child’s doctors.
Questions to Ask Before Starting Medication
Before your child starts taking psychiatric medication, do your own homework. Read about the medication. Maybe talk to your child’s pharmacist. Then talk to your child’s doctor about your research and all of your questions. Our list below can help get you started with your research.
- Side effects: These might be changes in your child’s eating, sleeping, growth, level of anxiety, emotional connections, speed of thought, and in some cases even digestive problems or organ failure.
- Off-label use and testing: For any medication being used off-label, find out what testing has been done, especially for children. See if you are comfortable with the research about the medication and its side effects.
- Starting and stopping: Talk to your doctor before your child stops taking their medication. Some psychiatric medications need to build up in a child’s system to work. Starting or stopping a medication might be uncomfortable, so it’s very important to know about adjustment periods and have a plan.
- Other medications: Psychiatric medications might change the way other medications work in a child’s body, and other medications might change the way psychiatric medications work (this is called a drug interaction). These interactions might make a medication too strong, make it not work at all, or have a different dangerous effect on your child’s body.
- Drugs and alcohol: Teenagers in particular might experiment with drugs and alcohol. Mixing drugs or alcohol with certain psychiatric or other medications can cause bad reactions.
- Follow up: Ask how often should you check in with your child and your child’s doctor to see how the medication is working. Your child’s doctor might want to run extra tests (like on blood sugar or cholesterol) as part of this check-in.
Respecting Your Child’s Feelings
It’s very important to respect your child’s feelings about psychiatric medication. After all, we are talking about their body, brain, and life. Here are some ways to work with your child:
- Talk about the medication in language they understand.
- Figure out when and where they will take their medication. Maybe taking medication at school is a problem – talk about this with your child and the doctor to see if there’s another time that works.
- If your child does not take pills, see if the medication comes in a liquid or powder form.
- Ask them to keep a journal of how they feel to help you both track how well the medication is working. Use this journal when talking to your child’s doctor.
- If your child wants to stop taking a medication, find out why. Talk to their doctor together about different options – maybe a change in dosage, a plan for phasing out the medication, or a plan for trying a different one.