Panic attacks are most often associated with adults, but children and adolescents can have them too. The symptoms are basically the same for children as adults and can include the overwhelming fear that something terrible is about to happen. Panic attacks can really disrupt a child’s life and frighten parents who don’t understand what is happening.   

When children have recurrent panic attacks it’s called a panic disorder.

Children and adolescents with panic disorder have unexpected and repeated periods of intense fear or discomfort, along with other symptoms such as a racing heartbeat or feeling short of breath. The attacks can last minutes to hours. Unfortunately, panic attacks frequently develop without warning. They just suddenly appear and can be terrifying.

The good news is that panic attacks are treatable.

The symptoms of a panic attack can vary. The most common symptoms include:

  • Intense fearfulness (a sense that something terrible is happening)
  • Racing or pounding heartbeat
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Shortness of breath or a feeling of being smothered
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Sense of unreality
  • Fear of dying, losing control, or losing your mind

Panic disorders often begin during the adolescent years, but can start in childhood. Panic attacks sometimes run in families, so it’s important to know your family-tree medical history.

If not diagnosed and treated, complications from panic disorder can be very harmful. Panic attacks can interfere with a child's or adolescent's relationships, schoolwork, and normal development. Attacks can lead to not just severe anxiety, but can also affect other parts of a child's mood or ability to function. Children and adolescents with panic disorder may begin to feel anxious most of the time, even when they are not having panic attacks. Some begin to avoid situations where they fear a panic attack may occur, or situations where help may not be available.

As an example, a child may be reluctant to go to school or be separated from his or her parents. In severe cases, the child or adolescent may be afraid to leave home. As with other anxiety disorders, this pattern of avoiding certain places or situations is called "agoraphobia." Some children and adolescents with panic disorder can develop severe depression and may be at risk of suicidal behavior. As an attempt to decrease anxiety, some adolescents with panic disorder will use alcohol or drugs.

It’s not easy to diagnose panic disorder in children or adolescents. If you suspect that your child is having panic attacks it’s important that they see the family doctor or pediatrician for a comprehensive evaluation.

There are several types of panic disorder treatments that can be very effective. Specific medications may be prescribed to stop the attacks and ease anxiety. Psychotherapy may also be suggested. Many times a combination of the two is recommended. Cognitive behavioral therapy has also been successful in helping children and teens learn new ways to reduce stress and control panic attacks when they occur.

With treatment, the panic attacks can usually be stopped.

It’s best not to let panic attacks go on and on. Sometimes parents simply don’t recognize the symptoms and a child may have a very difficult time explaining what is happening to them. They may only be able to say “I’m scared” or “I feel like something bad is going to happen to me” or “ my heart is beating really fast and I feel like I can’t breathe.”  Once you’re aware that these may be symptoms of a panic attack then you’ll be better able to reassure your child that everything is okay and that the feeling will pass.

While you may be able to help your child get through a panic attack, early treatment is critical in preventing complications such as agoraphobia, depression and substance abuse.

The National Institute of Mental Health’s website is linked below. You can learn more about panic disorder on their website or you can call their toll free number at 1-800-64-PANIC.

Sources:  (National Institute of Mental Health)