Treating Pediatric Anxiety: Initial Use of SSRIs and Other Antianxiety Prescription Medications

J Clin Psychiatry. 2018 Jan-Feb;79(1):16m11415. doi: 10.4088/JCP.16m11415.


Objective: Multiple pharmacotherapies for treating anxiety disorders exist, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), the recommended first-line pharmacotherapy for pediatric anxiety. We sought to describe initial antianxiety medication use in children and estimate how long antianxiety medications were continued.

Methods: In a large commercial claims database, we identified children (3-17 years) initiating prescription antianxiety medication from 2004 to 2014 with a recent anxiety diagnosis (ICD-9-CM = 293.84, 300.0x, 300.2x, 300.3x, 309.21, 309.81, 313.23). We estimated the proportion of children initiating each medication class across the study period and used multivariable regression to evaluate factors associated with initiation with an SSRI. We evaluated treatment length for each initial medication class.

Results: Of 84,500 children initiating antianxiety medication, 70% initiated with an SSRI (63% [95% CI, 62%-63%] SSRI alone, 7% [95% CI, 7%-7%] SSRI + another antianxiety medication). Non-SSRI medications initiated included benzodiazepines (8%), non-SSRI antidepressants (7%), hydroxyzine (4%), and atypical antipsychotics (3%). Anxiety disorder, age, provider type, and comorbid diagnoses were associated with initial medication class. The proportion of children refilling their initial medication ranged from 19% (95% CI, 18%-20%) of hydroxyzine initiators and 25% (95% CI, 24%-26%) of benzodiazepine initiators to 81% (95% CI, 80%-81%) of SSRI initiators. Over half (55%, 95% CI, 55%-56%) of SSRI initiators continued SSRI treatment for 6 months.

Conclusions: SSRIs are the most commonly used first-line medication for pediatric anxiety disorders, with about half of SSRI initiators continuing treatment for 6 months. Still, a third began therapy on a non-SSRI medication, for which there is limited evidence of effectiveness for pediatric anxiety, and a notable proportion of children initiated with 2 antianxiety medication classes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Age Factors
  • Anti-Anxiety Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Anxiety Disorders / drug therapy*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Drug Therapy, Combination / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder / drug therapy
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data*
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / trends
  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors / therapeutic use*
  • Stress Disorders, Post-Traumatic / drug therapy


  • Anti-Anxiety Agents
  • Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors