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Panic Attacks & Panic Disorder In Children: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment

Panic Attacks in Children

Panic attacks in children can look like a serious medical emergency and can be very frightening for the parents to see a panic attack in their child. Your child may suddenly "out of the blue" become very breathless, shaky, their heart start racing and they may feel like fainting. They may experience tingling in their hands, around the mouth or stomach and may start getting spasms in their muscles due to hyperventilation. Panic disorder is characterized by recurring panic attacks.

There are three basic forms in which panic attacks can occur in children. First off, there is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). This form of anxiety usually is the result of social events, such as, holidays, birthdays, any kind of reunions or celebrations with friends or family. Therapy and helping the child find things that relax him are the best ways to deal with GAD.

Secondly, there is Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) which has to do with the child not being able to cope with the separation of someone they are close to, or feel comfortable with. Most commonly it is a parent or guardian. Help your child understand that you are going away for a period of time and then you will return and spend time with him//her. This way your child will learn that you will come back when you leave.

The third basic form of a panic attack is when a child returns to school after a long break. A good way to deal with this is to compliment things the child does well, give the child incentive, and encourage the child to go to school. (See hereHow to Help a Child with Anxiety about School)

What Causes Panic Attacks in Children

It is understandable that panic attacks in children are on the rise. Given the fast paced world we live in, the pressure to succeed, and the tension that exists in many families, it is common for even young children to experience feelings of fear and discomfort that can be real or imagined.

Not all of these influences may result in intense panic attacks, but children and adults can experience them without any warning, and the sudden onset can disrupt relationships and interfere with activities such as school and recreation.

There are countless things panic attacks can result from. Whether it be peer pressure in school, trying to be the favorite sibling, feeling like the divorce was his or her fault, or losing a loved one. As hard as it is, do not let your emotions get the best of you. Your child needs you to be there for him, and help him through this. It may seem difficult to deal at first, but there are simple solutions for these attacks. Children need to go through these situations as part of a learning process. This way when they have issues in the future, they can recall the solution and easily work their way through it.

   Read also: Anxiety in Children

Child Panic Attack Symptoms

The causes of panic attacks are varied and may be situations that, in a child’s mind, become magnified all out of proportion. The fear is real and creates a long list of symptoms. Here are what could be considered the main symptoms:
  • Shortness of Breath – Can trigger Asthma symptoms and dizziness
  • Rapid Heartbeat – The fight or flight feeling
  • Claustrophobia – Feeling confined, even in open spaces
  • Emotional Fear of Dying or Doom – Even with no rational basis
  • Numbness or Tingling – Located anywhere on the body
  • Nausea – Brought on by nervous system overload
  • Agoraphobia – Afraid to leave home

Panic Disorder in Children

The panic alarm can go off at very random times. Once an attack has occurred, the seed is planted that every time the situation is repeated, the same reaction may surface. The only way to remedy a panic disorder in children is to overcome the fear is by resetting the alarm system. They need to learn to cope, and not just withdraw from their family and friends.

Sometimes it is hard for the family to understand, because the child or adolescent finds it difficult to put their fears into words. Communication isn’t always easy, so the real cause of the problem may be misdiagnosed.

A panic disorder in children isn’t necessarily a serious threat to physical health, though it may seem so at the time. Many times the syndrome is just outgrown, although it may reoccur later in life, especially if it is genetic.

The most serious threat with panic attacks in children is how it disrupts a child’s life on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, complications such as drug abuse, depression and alcoholism can become an even bigger problem during the teenage years. Teens with clinical depression may also develop panic symptoms. 

How to Treat Child Panic Attacks & Deal with Panic Disorder in Children

There have been important advances in understanding symptoms of panic attacks, so dealing with panic disorder in children is similar to the methods used to treat adults.

Psychotherapy: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

This type of therapy deals with how a child’s anxiety impacts their life. CBT assists the child or adolescent in responding to the illness in a positive way. Training them to notice when the physical or psychological symptoms are present, and therefore help them modify the reactions that occur both consciously and unconsciously.

Explaining panic attacks to a child: When a child understands their panic attacks symptoms, it is easier for them to defuse their reactions.

Involving the family increases the effects of CBT. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy should only be administered by specially trained and skilled specialists.

Online therapy is also a good alternative to try. (See here: CBT based Online Therapy)

Confront the Fear

If there is a certain activity that caused a panic attack, or a particular place that a child obviously avoids, they need to face their fear. Slowly working up to how long to stay in each situation is always a good practice. Someone to lean on at first also can speed up the process, but eventually the child should go through it alone.

Child Panic Attack Medication

Depending on the severity, panic attacks in children may require medication, Low strength tranquilizers, like Xanax, are prescribed in many instances. Since the main side effect is drowsiness, you may find your child loosing concentration. There is also a low risk of addiction, so only use tranquilizers and other medications with your doctor’s permission.

Sometimes used as panic disorder medications, Antidepressants are not considered additive. They help avoid panic attacks by adjusting the fuse that sets off the anxiety. Dosage levels are very important, and if not administered in the right amount can make the symptoms worse.

The connection with family is generally accepted as valid. If you or other members of your family, in any generation, have a history of treatment for anxiety or panic attacks, it should be brought up. This may help narrow the treatment options, depending on how the medications will be tolerated when using the same methods for treating panic attacks in children.

Avoid Panic Attacks in Children

Controlling panic attacks in children is avoiding common anxiety triggers.
  • Caffeinated drinks can make your child edgy, which might amplify their stress level.
  • Lack of sleep can be a cause and an effect.
  • Problems at school, either peer pressure or feeling overwhelmed.
  • Going through Puberty and not understanding.


Panic attacks are many times a once in a lifetime experience. When the attacks become a frequent event, panic disorder causes deeper feelings, such as agoraphobia, that greatly impact a child’s life. The sooner it is treated, the better the ratio of success.


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