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Anti-Anxiety Medication Pros and Cons in Teens

Mental health professionals use the term anxiety to denote a state of fear, dread, nervousness or unease. Feeling anxious now and then is a natural part of being human. However, if anxiety occurs too often or is particularly strong, this can negatively impact one’s overall well-being and ability to function. Specific types of these conditions include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, panic disorder and agoraphobia. A significant number of U.S. teenagers are affected by significant levels of anxiety or sleeping difficulties that impair their daily functioning. In some cases, doctors prescribe medications to help teens deal with anxiety- or sleep-related issues.

Teens and GAD

Adolescents (ages 13 to 18) have a 25% lifetime prevalence of anxiety disorder, and of those, about 6% of cases are severe.1 In adolescents, excessive worrying typically involves future events, past behaviors, social acceptance, family matters, personal abilities and school performance. Teens with GAD often do not realize that their anxiety is disproportionate to reality, so adults need to be cognizant of potential symptoms.2 Red flags for GAD in teens include:

  • “What if” fears about situations far into the future
  • Perfectionism, excessive self-criticism and fear of making mistakes
  • Feeling that they are responsible for disasters of any kind, and the belief that worrying will prevent these tragic events
  • The belief that misfortune is contagious and will happen to them
  • Need for frequent reassurance and approval

Teens and Sleep Problems

Teens require eight to 10 hours of sleep each night to keep their minds and bodies working at peak levels. In the early 1990s, a widely recognized phenomenon known as sleep-phase delay was uncovered in teens. Their circadian rhythm (internal biological clock) shifts to a later time, making it more difficult for them to fall asleep before 11 p.m. Most teens do not get enough sleep — a 2006 study found that only 15% reported sleeping 8 1/2 hours on school nights. A 2011 survey showed that by the time students are high school seniors, they are sleeping an average of 6.9 hours a night, a decrease from an average of 8.4 hours in sixth grade.3

Underlying reasons for sleep-related difficulties in teens include maintaining highly active daily routines (e.g. school, home, social and work life), the demands placed on the brain and body as part of adolescent development and the average teen’s failure to make sleep a priority. Many teens suffer from treatable sleep disorders including narcolepsy, insomnia, restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea.4

Teen Drug Abuse

While signs of drug abuse depend on the substance being used/abused, there may be changes in sleep, mood, appetite, weight, behavior and personality. In 2015, about 17% of high school students said they took a prescription drug of any kind without a physician’s prescription.5 A different survey indicated that nearly 50% of teens believe that prescription drugs are much safer than illegal street drugs. About 60% to 70% of teens said that home medicine cabinets were the source of their drugs.6

Impact of Anti-Anxiety and Sleep Meds in Teens

According to several studies, the prescribing of anti-anxiety and sleep medications in teens has increased over the past decade, along with abuse of these drugs. A 2011 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimated that 3% of adolescents in the U.S. abuse these medications.7

A November 2014 article published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors uncovered negative implications regarding the use of anti-anxiety medications and sleep medications in teens. A total of 2,745 Detroit-area adolescents took part in this University of Michigan study. Nearly 9% had been prescribed potentially addictive anti-anxiety meds or sleeping pills. More than 3% of students had a current prescription during the 2009-2012 study.

Select Study Findings

  • Students with prescriptions were 10 times more likely than their peers to obtain anti-anxiety or sleep medications illegally for reasons such as experimenting or getting high.
  • Study participants with a lifetime history of using a properly prescribed anti-anxiety medication were nearly 12 times more likely to abuse this type of medication than peers who were never issued such a prescription.
  • Students were more likely to abuse anti-anxiety or sleep medications if they were white, female or had a valid prescription for several years.

“When taken as prescribed, these drugs are effective and not dangerous. The problem is when adolescents use too many of them or mix them with other substances, especially alcohol,” said lead researcher Carol J. Boyd, PhD. The authors warned that physicians and parents should closely monitor the use of these medications in teens to help prevent anti-anxiety and sleeping pill addiction and abuse.

  1. Any Anxiety Disorder Among Children. National Institute of Mental Health website. Accessed June 17, 2016.
  2. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Help Guide website. Updated May 2016. Accessed July 22, 2016.
  3. Among teens, sleep deprivation an epidemic. Stanford Medicine website. Published October 2015. Accessed July 22, 2016.
  4. Teens and Sleep. National Sleep Foundation website. Accessed July 22, 2016.
  5. Alcohol and Other Drug Use. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Accessed July 22, 2016.
  6. The Truth about Prescription Drug Abuse. Foundation for a Drug-Free World website. Accessed July 22, 2016.
  7. Teens Prescribed Anti-Anxiety or Sleep Medications More Likely to Abuse Those Drugs Illegally, Research Finds. American Psychological Association website. Published November 24, 2014. Accessed July 22, 2016.

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