For many families, considering medication as part of a comprehensive treatment approach for a teen’s anxiety can be a challenging decision. It raises questions about safety, efficacy, and long-term implications for a developing brain. 

This article provides a guide to using anxiety medications for teens, equipping parents and caregivers with a clear grasp of available options.

What is anxiety medication for teens?

Anxiety medication for teens refers to specific prescription drugs designed to manage and alleviate anxiety symptoms in adolescents. These medicines, while similar to those for adults, may have different effects, dosages, and considerations given the developmental factors in teens.

Key points about anxiety medication for teens:

  • Prescription: Often prescribed by psychiatrists, pediatricians, or primary care physicians familiar with the teen’s medical history.
  • Often paired with therapy: Medication is frequently used alongside cognitive-behavioral therapy or other therapeutic methods.
  • Usage: They are used for generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and other related conditions.
  • Not a one-size-fits-all: Response to medication can vary among individuals. What’s effective for one teen might not be for another.

These medications are typically applied in scenarios where the teen has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and non-pharmaceutical interventions haven’t been sufficiently effective or when immediate relief is required.

How does teen anxiety medication work?

Anxiety medications for teens target the brain’s chemical messengers, known as neurotransmitters, to help regulate mood and emotions. 

Instead of feeling overwhelmed or constantly on edge, these medications aim to create a more balanced emotional state. Here’s a summary of the process:

Serotonin balance

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter often termed the “feel-good” chemical. When its levels are low, feelings of anxiety or depression can arise. 

Anxiety medications, like SSRIs, increase the availability of serotonin in the brain. They prevent it from being reabsorbed by nerve cells, ensuring more serotonin remains active.

Dual action on mood

Some anxiety disorders may not solely rely on serotonin imbalances. They might also be influenced by another neurotransmitter called norepinephrine. 

SNRIs come into play here, affecting both serotonin and norepinephrine. This dual action can provide broader symptom relief for certain individuals.

Calming hyperactivity

Sometimes, the brain’s activity needs to be toned down to combat acute anxiety symptoms. Benzodiazepines amplify the effect of GABA, a neurotransmitter that curbs neural activity. This action induces calmness and reduces feelings of acute anxiety.

Addressing physical symptoms

Anxiety isn’t solely a mental experience; it can also present physical symptoms like a rapid heartbeat or tremors. In these cases, beta-blockers are used to alleviate these physical symptoms. They counteract the effects of adrenaline, the “fight or flight” hormone, ensuring the body doesn’t overreact to stress.

Types of anxiety medications for teens

In choosing the right medication for a teenager, various factors come into play. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to understand that many of these medications have undergone rigorous testing to ensure their safety and effectiveness in adolescents. 

Here are some common anxiety pills for teenagers:

SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors)

SSRIs are often the first choice for treating teen anxiety. Examples include Prozac (fluoxetine), Zoloft (sertraline), and Lexapro (escitalopram). They help increase serotonin levels in the brain, elevating mood and reducing anxiety symptoms.


  • Effective for both depression and anxiety
  • Suitable for long-term use
  • Non-addictive


  • May take several weeks to become fully effective
  • Abrupt discontinuation can lead to withdrawal symptoms.

Common side effects

  • Nausea
  • Insomnia or sleep disturbances
  • Weight gain or weight loss
  • Decreased libido or sexual dysfunction
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness
  • Increased sweating


While effective, benzodiazepines are typically prescribed on a short-term basis due to concerns about dependency. Drugs like Xanax (alprazolam), Ativan (lorazepam), and Valium (diazepam) fall under this category.


  • Provides quick relief, often within 30 minutes to an hour.
  • Especially useful for panic attacks or acute anxiety episodes.
  • Some benzodiazepines also have muscle-relaxing properties.


  • Can be addictive, especially with long-term use.
  • Over time, higher doses might be needed to achieve the same effect, increasing the risk of overdose.

Common side effects

  • Drowsiness or sedation
  • Dizziness
  • Memory problems or cognitive impairment
  • Slurred speech
  • Muscle weakness
  • Balance problems or unsteadiness

Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs)

SNRIs are effective for generalized anxiety disorder. They work by increasing the level of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain. Some common examples are Duloxetine (Cymbalta) and Venlafaxine (Effexor XR).


  • Effective for treating both depression and anxiety
  • Suitable for long-term treatment
  • Non-addictive


  • Like SSRIs, it might take time before the full benefits are observed.
  • May cause withdrawal symptoms if discontinued abruptly

Common side effects

  • Nausea
  • Dry mouth
  • Dizziness
  • Increased blood pressure

Buspirone (Buspar)

Buspirone is designed specifically for treating generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). For teens who might not respond to SSRIs or cannot tolerate them due to adverse reactions, buspirone presents a viable alternative. However, unlike benzodiazepines, it doesn’t offer instant relief.


  • Lower risk of dependency
  • Less sedating than benzodiazepines.
  • Suitable for long-term treatment.

Side effects

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • headaches

Other medications


While primarily used to treat heart conditions, beta-blockers like propranolol can also be prescribed off-label for anxiety, especially for physical symptoms like rapid heartbeat.

  • Effective for situational anxiety like before a public speaking event.
  • Lower risk of dependence
  • Not suitable for long-term treatment of generalized anxiety
  • May interact with other medications
  • Does not address the emotional or psychological aspects of anxiety.
Common side effects
  • Fatigue
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Low blood pressure

Antipsychotic medications

In certain cases where anxiety is severe or coexists with other conditions, low doses of antipsychotic medications like Risperdal (risperidone) or Olanzapine (Zyprexa) might be prescribed.

Side effects
  • Weight gain
  • Drowsiness
  • Increased risk of diabetes

Difference between anti-anxiety meds for teens and antidepressants

While many medications used to treat teen anxiety are classified as antidepressants, it’s important to understand the distinction between these two terms. 

Antidepressants, particularly SSRIs, are primarily labeled as “antidepressants” but are FDA-approved to treat anxiety disorders. Benzodiazepines, on the other hand, are strictly anti-anxiety medications. However, owing to their potential for dependency, they are often prescribed with caution.

Best medication for teenage anxiety

Determining the “best” medication for teenage anxiety isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. It requires collaborative efforts between the teenager, their family, and their healthcare provider. Here’s a closer look at some pivotal considerations:

Severity of anxiety

The intensity and frequency of anxiety symptoms often determine the most suitable medication. For milder symptoms, approaches like cognitive-behavioral therapy might be the initial recommendation. 

However,  more pronounced symptoms may necessitate a blend of therapy and medication from the start.

Comorbid conditions

Teenagers with anxiety often face additional challenges like depression, ADHD, or eating disorders. These coexisting conditions can influence medication choices, as certain drugs may alleviate various symptoms while others could worsen them.

Potential side effects

All medications have potential side effects. Some teens may experience these more profoundly or may be at greater risk due to pre-existing health conditions. The ideal medication offers relief from anxiety with minimal disruptive or harmful side effects.

Duration of treatment

Medications such as benzodiazepines are typically used for short-term relief, while SSRIs are intended for more prolonged use. The expected treatment duration can play a role in determining the most appropriate medication.

Above all, open communication is vital. Teens should feel empowered to discuss their feelings about the medication, any side effects they’re experiencing, or any concerns they might have. Their insights, combined with clinical observation, will guide the treatment journey.

Can pediatricians prescribe anxiety medications?

As primary care providers, pediatricians often serve as the first point of contact for many health concerns, including behavioral and mental health issues. Their role in diagnosing and managing anxiety in teens is undeniable, but when it comes to prescribing medication, many questions arise. 

In answering the question, the simple answer is yes. Pediatricians can and often do, prescribe medications for anxiety. They have the required training to prescribe SSRIs, benzodiazepines, and other relevant medications as the situation demands.

Regardless of who prescribes the medication, ongoing communication between the medical professional, the teen, and their family is essential for successful treatment.

Alternative anxiety relief for teens

While medication provides a solution for many, it’s essential to explore the array of natural and alternative avenues available for anxiety relief. These methods can be particularly attractive for teens reluctant to begin medication or families seeking a holistic approach to managing anxiety.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a type of talk therapy shown to be highly effective for treating anxiety in teenagers. It involves identifying negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to anxiety and then working to replace them with healthier, more positive ones. 

Through CBT, teens can gain valuable skills to confront and manage their fears rather than avoid or be controlled by them.

Mindfulness and meditation

The benefits of mindfulness and meditation in managing anxiety are becoming more widely recognized. These practices encourage individuals to stay present, focusing on the moment rather than getting lost in anxious thoughts about the past or future. 

Regular mindfulness exercises and meditation sessions can help teens build resilience against anxiety triggers and foster a sense of inner calm.

Lifestyle changes

It’s remarkable how interconnected our mental and physical well-being are. The following habits can make a substantial difference in teens’ overall health:

  • Healthy sleep habits: Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule and ensuring 8-10 hours of quality rest can significantly influence mood and anxiety levels.
  • Regular exercise: Physical activity not only benefits the body but is also a natural remedy for anxiety. It releases endorphins, the brain’s natural painkillers and mood boosters.
  • Balanced nutrition: Embracing a diet rich in whole foods, probiotics, and Omega-3 fatty acids can positively impact mental health. Additionally, moderating caffeine and sugar intake can be effective in managing anxiety symptoms.

Real-life examples of teen anxiety medication

Real-life experiences can offer invaluable insights into the journey of managing teen anxiety. While these anecdotes don’t replace professional advice, they offer a more personal perspective. Here are a few shared experiences:

Sophie’s journey

Sophie began experiencing severe panic attacks at the age of 15. Initially, her family tried natural remedies, but the intensity of her episodes made it clear she needed more immediate intervention. After consulting with a psychiatrist, Sophie was prescribed an SSRI. 

Alongside therapy, she saw a significant reduction in her panic attacks and felt more in control of her emotions.

David’s cautionary tale

David was prescribed benzodiazepines for his acute anxiety. While they offered immediate relief, over time, he began to rely heavily on them, leading to increased tolerance. 

With the guidance of his doctor, David transitioned to an SSRI and combined it with CBT, addressing the root causes of his anxiety without the risk of dependence.

Maya’s holistic approach

While Maya’s anxiety wasn’t as intense as Sophie’s or David’s, she and her parents were keen on exploring medication. They consulted a child psychiatrist who suggested trying therapy and lifestyle changes first. Maya embarked on a journey of meditation, exercise, and dietary shifts.

Six months later, her anxiety levels had dramatically decreased without the introduction of medication.

It’s evident from these stories that the journey with anxiety medication is highly individual. While some teens benefit immensely from them, others might find relief through alternative means. 

Common misconceptions about anxiety medication for teens

While medication can offer immense relief, societal reactions, and misconceptions can pose a challenge for teens with anxiety. Here are some most common myths about anxiety medication for teens and the truths behind them.

Anxiety is just a phase

Many believe that teens don’t experience “real” anxiety and that it’s merely a phase related to their age. While adolescence is undoubtedly a time of emotional fluctuation, it doesn’t invalidate genuine cases of anxiety that require medical intervention.

Medication is the easy way out

Some perceive using medication as a shortcut or a sign of weakness, thinking that teens should persevere independently. In reality, deciding to use medication often comes after careful consideration, discussions with professionals, and monitoring.

Medication alters personality

Anxiety meds for teens aim to manage anxiety symptoms, not to change one’s intrinsic personality traits. In fact, some teenagers report a heightened sense of self-identity once debilitating anxiety is managed.

Immediate results are not guaranteed

There’s an expectation that anxiety medication will work instantly. However, some medications take weeks before noticeable changes occur. It’s a process of finding the right dosage and sometimes even the right medication.

All anxiety medications are addictive

There’s a widespread belief that all anxiety meds lead to addiction. While some medications have dependency risks, many, like SSRIs, aren’t habit-forming and are deemed safe for long-term use by many professionals.

Overcoming challenges with anxiety medications for teens

When parents or guardians consider teen anxiety medications as a potential solution, they often find themselves facing a myriad of challenges. This section discusses some of the major obstacles individuals might encounter and practical strategies to navigate them.

The stigma associated with medication

For many, there’s a societal stigma attached to psychiatric medications, especially for teens. This can lead to feelings of shame or reluctance to pursue a treatment option. Here’s how you can navigate this:

  • Educate: Equip yourself with knowledge about teen anxiety medications. Knowledge dispels myths.
  • Engage: Participate in community or online support groups to connect with others going through similar experiences.
  • Advocate: Encourage open discussions in your community or school about the benefits and risks of anxiety medications.

Concerns about dependency

Certain anxiety medications come with a risk of dependency, raising concerns among parents and teens alike. Here’s how to cope with this:

  • Short-term use: Consider medications like benzodiazepines for short-term use only, unless otherwise advised by a professional.
  • Seek alternatives: Explore other therapeutic interventions or medications with a lower risk of dependence.
  • Close monitoring: Regularly review medication needs and effects with a healthcare professional.

Managing side effects

Potential side effects can be a significant concern and might deter some teens from adhering to their regimen. Here are some ways to overcome this challenge:

  • Stay informed: Before beginning the medication, familiarize yourself with its potential side effects.
  • Prompt reporting: Encourage teens to report any side effects immediately.
  • Medication adjustments: Remember that dosages or even the type of medication can be changed to minimize side effects.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the difference between “anxiety meds for teens” and “anti-anxiety meds for teens”?

Essentially, both terms often refer to the same type of medication. However, the difference lies in their primary focus. Anxiety meds is a broader term, which can encompass drugs that treat anxiety alongside other conditions like depression. On the other hand, anti-anxiety meds typically target anxiety symptoms more directly.

Can pediatricians prescribe antidepressants?

Yes, pediatricians can prescribe antidepressants. They are trained to recognize symptoms of depression and anxiety in children and teenagers and can initiate treatment, but they often collaborate with or refer to adolescent psychiatrists and specialists, especially for complex cases.

Is it safe for teens to be on anxiety medications long-term?

The long-term safety of anxiety medications for teens depends on the specific medication, the dosage, the individual’s unique needs, and the presence of any other medical conditions. In many cases, medications are used in conjunction with therapy and other treatments. 

Final thoughts 

Anxiety medications, while an essential tool, are only part of a broader approach to managing teen anxiety. The best approach combines an individualized treatment plan, inclusive of medications, with supportive therapies and lifestyle adjustments.