Challenges and Promises of Pediatric Psychopharmacology

Acad Pediatr. 2016 Aug;16(6):508-18. doi: 10.1016/j.acap.2016.03.011. Epub 2016 Apr 5.


Most prescriptions for psychotropic medications are written by primary care physicians, yet pediatricians, many of whom are teaching residents and medical students about pediatric psychopharmacology, often feel inadequately trained to treat mental health concerns. Over the past several decades, the number, size, and quality of psychopharmacologic studies in youth has greatly increased. Here we review the current evidence for efficacy and safety of each of the major pharmacologic drug classes in youth (psychostimulants, antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and antipsychotics). Psychostimulants have a robust body of literature supporting their evidence as first-line treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) have documented efficacy for pediatric depression and multiple different anxiety disorders with childhood onset. Combining cognitive-behavioral therapy with SSRI treatment enhances treatment benefit and minimizes adverse events of medication. Mood stabilizers, including lithium and anticonvulsant medications, have a less robust strength of evidence and come with more problematic side effects. However, they are increasingly prescribed to youth, often to treat irritability, mood lability, and aggression, along with treatment of bipolar disorder. Antipsychotics have long been a mainstay of treatment for childhood-onset schizophrenia, and in recent years, the evidence base for providing antipsychotics to youth with bipolar mania and autistic disorder has grown. Most concerning with antipsychotics are the metabolic side effects, which appear even more problematic in youth than adults. By better understanding the evidence-based psychopharmacologic interventions, academic pediatricians will be able to treat patients and prepare future pediatrician to address the growing mental health care needs of youth.

Keywords: antidepressants; antipsychotics; pediatrics; psychiatry; psychopharmacology; stimulants.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aggression
  • Anticonvulsants / therapeutic use
  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use
  • Antimanic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Antipsychotic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Anxiety Disorders / drug therapy
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity / drug therapy
  • Bipolar Disorder / drug therapy
  • Central Nervous System Stimulants / therapeutic use
  • Child
  • Depressive Disorder / drug therapy
  • Humans
  • Irritable Mood
  • Lithium Compounds / therapeutic use
  • Mental Disorders / drug therapy*
  • Mood Disorders / drug therapy
  • Pediatrics
  • Psychopharmacology
  • Psychotropic Drugs / therapeutic use*
  • Schizophrenia / drug therapy


  • Anticonvulsants
  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Antimanic Agents
  • Antipsychotic Agents
  • Central Nervous System Stimulants
  • Lithium Compounds
  • Psychotropic Drugs