Sweaty palms, rapidly beating heart, shortness of breath, weak legs–these are frightening feelings that typically accompany a panic attack. For a child, they can be extremely uncomfortable and troubling until they know why this is happening to them.
As a parent, know that panic attacks are quite common and treatable. By understanding what they are, what triggers them, and how to overcome them, we can help our children live panic-free.
What Is A Panic Attack?
The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry defines panic disorder as having unexpected and repeated periods of intense fear or discomfort, along with physical symptoms such as a racing heartbeat, irritable stomach, chest pain, dizziness, and/or shortness of breath. These episodes can last minutes to several hours and often develop without warning.
Panic disorder often first appears during adolescence, although it can start during childhood. Anxiety in children is on the rise, so it’s critical that we learn how to address panic attacks in children as soon as possible. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), it is estimated that 1 in 8 children suffers from an anxiety disorder. More worrisome, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that 25 percent of teens ages 13-18 will experience some form of anxiety.
Symptoms of a panic attack include:
- Intense fear–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
Although scientists are still trying to determine the exact cause of panic disorder, genetics, other biological factors, stressful events, and thinking in a way that exaggerates relatively normal bodily sensations are all believed to play a role in triggering panic attacks.
What If Panic Attacks Are Left Untreated?
If not addressed, panic attacks in children can lead to a devastating cycle of fear. This can end up interfering with their relationships, schoolwork, and development–ultimately impacting their level of happiness and success in life. Panic can also cause a child to develop moodiness and other issues like irritability and anger.
They may also begin to feel anxious throughout the day, as they anticipate the next panic attack coming. They will then want to avoid situations where they experienced a panic episode in the past. Sadly, the list of places can grow over time, causing someone with panic disorder to form agoraphobia, fear of leaving one’s house. If panic persists, they can also develop other issues such as depression or substance abuse.
How To Treat Panic Attacks In Children
If your child suffers from panic attacks, then getting counseling is probably the best answer. According to Child Mind Institute, “a professional will diagnose panic disorder if attacks are recurrent, and unexpected, and if one attack is followed in the ensuing months by other signs including: a preoccupation with the possibility of further attacks; fear of the effects of an attack, including the feeling of having a heart attack or “going crazy”; and a considerable change from normal behavior following the attacks, such as avoiding places associated with them.”
Counseling can also help children learn ways to reduce stressors that tend to trigger a panic attack. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) offers some of the most effective tools to control panic attacks in children, so start by looking for a counselor who specializes in CBT. Some approaches include learning how to reduce negative, avoidance-based behavior patterns and exposing them to situations that trigger their panic. A counselor will also provide coping skills for kids like deep breathing exercises to calm down the physical sensations.
How have you addressed panic attacks in your family?