Pharmacologic treatment approaches for children and adolescents with posttraumatic stress disorder

Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2003 Apr;12(2):251-69. doi: 10.1016/s1056-4993(02)00102-5.


Posttraumatic stress disorder is a common cause of morbidity in children and adolescents. The disorder in youth is similar to that in adults, with high rates of psychiatric comorbidity. Children seem to be more sensitive to the effects of trauma, and early life trauma exposure may induce a complex sequence of events that leads to the development of multiple psychiatric disorders in adulthood. The state of knowledge regarding medication treatments for children and adolescents is in the earliest stages of development. There are no well-conducted, randomized clinical trials to guide practitioners. Medication may play an important role in reducing debilitating symptoms of PTSD and providing a buffer for children while they confront difficult material in therapy and may help to improve their general functioning in day-to-day life. Given the various medications with potential usefulness in PTSD, it is helpful to use a stepwise approach to treatment. As a general principal, broad-spectrum agents, such as the SSRIs, are a good first choice. The SSRIs have efficacy in treating the core symptoms of PTSD and conditions such as the anxiety disorders and depression that commonly co-occur with PTSD. These agents also improve social and occupational functioning and an individual's perception of improved quality of life [41, 45, 46]. Although the SSRIs are generally effective for a broad spectrum of problems, clinicians should systematically monitor for the persistence of symptoms that do not respond to these agents. For example, despite significant improvements in core PTSD symptoms in one study that used sertraline, little improvement was seen in patients' comorbid anxiety and depressive symptoms [41]. This finding demonstrates the value of continuous symptom monitoring and shows that residual or comorbid symptoms may require a different medication to augment effective SSRI treatment for PTSD. A reasonable approach is to begin with a broad-spectrum agent, such as an SSRI, which should target anxiety, mood, and reexperiencing symptoms. Adrenergic agents, such as clonidine, used either alone or in combination with an SSRI may be useful when symptoms of hyperarousal and impulsivity are problematic. Supplementing with a mood stabilizer may be necessary in severe affective dyscontrol. Similarly, introduction of an atypical neuroleptic agent may be necessary in cases of severe self-injurious behavior, dissociation, psychosis, or aggression. Comorbid conditions such as ADHD should be targeted with pharmacotherapy known to be effective, such as psychostimulants or newer agents such as atomoxetine. Pharmacologic treatment of PTSD in childhood is one approach to alleviating the acute and chronic symptoms of the disorder. Despite the lack of well-designed, randomized, controlled trials that support efficacy, medication can be used in a rational and safe manner. Reduction in even one disabling symptom, such as insomnia or hyperarousal, may have a positive ripple effect on a child's overall functioning. Pharmacotherapy is typically used as one component of a more comprehensive multiple modality treatment package, including psychoeducation of the parent and child, focused exposure-based psychotherapy with adjunctive family therapy when indicated, and long-term booster interventions that use an admixture of psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, and pharmacologic interventions.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adrenergic Agents / pharmacology
  • Adrenergic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Age Factors
  • Antidepressive Agents, Tricyclic / therapeutic use
  • Child
  • Dopamine Agents / pharmacology
  • Dopamine Agents / therapeutic use
  • Drug Monitoring
  • Humans
  • Neurobiology
  • Serotonin Agents / pharmacology
  • Serotonin Agents / therapeutic use
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / drug therapy*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / physiopathology
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / psychology


  • Adrenergic Agents
  • Antidepressive Agents, Tricyclic
  • Dopamine Agents
  • Serotonin Agents