Both the medical and lay press have directed a lot of attention lately to the treatment of children and adolescents with antipsychotic medications. The literature is clear that the number of children taking this class of medications has risen sharply since their release ( Arch. Gen. Psychiatry 2006;63:679-85 ). What is much less clear is the degree to which this increase represents a reasonable intervention for patients in significant need versus an overuse when other strategies are more appropriate.

Case Summary

Cody is a 6-year-old boy who lives with his younger sister and single mother. The family struggles financially, and the father, who has never had much contact with his son, is currently incarcerated. Since he was a toddler, Cody has been prone to high levels of aggressive behavior and frequent, intense angry outbursts. He was asked to leave his preschool due to his behavior and now is commonly disruptive at school. His pediatrician diagnosed him with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder a year ago and began a trial of a psychostimulant, which made him even more irritable, and was discontinued. Cody and his mother now present with concerns that there is “something more” affecting his behavior. The pediatrician now considers whether or not treatment with an antipsychotic medication is reasonable at this point.


The above clinical scenario represents a critical and often antagonizing moment in treatment for both the family and the treating physician, yet it is hardly uncommon. The situation often is made more complicated by the fact that what is often the first plan of action, namely referral or consultation with a child psychiatrist, can be very difficult to access.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has published online guidelines for the use of antipsychotic medication in youth ( ). Key recommendations and points from this 27-page document and 19 recommendations include the following:

• Patients being considered for treatment with an antipsychotic medication should receive a “meticulous diagnostic assessment” with any medication prescribed being part of a “multidisciplinary” treatment plan (Recommendation 1).

• Prescribers should “regularly check the current literature” regarding the scientific evidence for antipsychotic medication use (Recommendation 2).

• Antipsychotic medications are considered first-line medication treatment for bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, tics/Tourette’s, and autism. (Recommendation 2).

• Antipsychotic medications are not first-line treatment for several other diagnoses and behaviors, including disruptive behavior disorders such as ADHD, aggression, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Their use should be considered only after other pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic interventions have failed (Recommendation 2).

• Antipsychotic medications are not advised for preschool-aged patients. (Recommendation 2).

• Dosing should be as low as possible and not exceed the maximum recommended dose for adults (Recommendation 4).

• Simultaneous treatment with multiple antipsychotic medications is not recommended (Recommendation 8).

• Patients should receive regular metabolic monitoring, including lab work, both before and during treatment (Recommendations 11-13).

These are rigorous guidelines that challenge even those who regularly assess and treat children with serious psychiatric disorders. The clinical and legal implications of prescribing antipsychotic medications without adhering to these guidelines will, and probably should, give many physicians pause. Further, the specific point about the need for a thorough psychiatric evaluation underlies the commonly heard recommendation that this class of medicines generally should be avoided by primary care physicians. At the same time, many pediatricians are acutely aware of how dire the clinical situation often is for these families. At this point, it can easily begin to feel very much like a “no-win” situation.

Here are some thoughts that may be useful to consider in these moments:

• Remember that many non-MD mental health professionals can offer a lot of help. Although they can’t do the prescribing themselves, referral to a psychologist or another type of therapist can be useful in getting information about a patient’s diagnosis and the degree to which nonpharmacologic options have been exhausted. If the patient is already seeing a therapist, it is certainly worthwhile to seek their advice as to whether or not antipsychotic medications are now reasonable to consider.

• Look for opportunities to talk “curbside” to a child psychiatrist. Most of us are keenly aware of how inadequate access is to child psychiatry and want to help. Indeed, many states now have specific brief consultation programs in place.

• Get the lab work. A recent study in Pediatrics reported that a baseline glucose was obtained in only 11% of youth receiving antipsychotic medication treatment ( Pediatrics 2014;134:e1308-14 ). In addition to providing important information, this step signals to everyone involved that the decision to use these medications is not something to be taken lightly.

Case follow-up

Cody’s pediatrician decides to get a diagnostic evaluation from a psychologist, who confirms the ADHD diagnosis without associated conditions such as bipolar disorder. The psychologist recommends a course of therapy to build regulatory skills for Cody and provide the mother with some parent behavioral guidance about how to best manage Cody’s challenges and encourage health-promoting behaviors such as physical activity, reading, and a regular sleep routine. The pediatrician decides to try a second line ADHD medication, guanfacine, and the school also begins to institute an incentive plan to reinforce positive behavior. In combination, these efforts significantly reduce the level of aggression and dysregulated behavior.

Dr. Rettew is an associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Vermont, Burlington. Dr. Rettew said he has no relevant financial disclosures. Follow him on Twitter @pedipsych. E-mail him at Scan this QR code or go to


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