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Panic Disorder In Children And Adolescents

Detailed information on panic disorder in children and adolescents; including symptoms and treatments and how parents can help their children with anxiety and panic attacks.

What is panic disorder?

A child with panic disorder (PD) has sudden attacks of fear or severe anxiety. The fearful attacks happen several times over weeks or months. They may last a few minutes or they may last for hours. Attacks may happen for no obvious reason.

The attacks are not caused by fear of a single thing. That is called a phobia, like being scared of dogs or the dark. The attacks are also not caused by a traumatic event, like child abuse or being in a car accident. If caused by trauma, the child may have post-traumatic stress disorder.

All children and teens respond fearfully to the scary events of daily life. Their times of fear, however, are usually brief, and they go away without causing major problems. Panic disorder is when the fearful times happen over and over, begin suddenly without a clear cause, and are severe. PD interferes greatly with daily life at school and home.


 

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How does it occur?

Panic disorder begins most often in the late teenage years into the mid-30s. It does, however, sometimes start in childhood. It begins with a few attacks that come and go. Often it never goes beyond this, but some children start having the attacks often.

A stressful event, like parents divorcing or a move to a new place, may trigger the beginning. But often PD begins with no identified stressful event. It is common for a child to have periods of time with attacks and then go weeks or months with few or none. What causes attacks to stop and return is often unclear.

Panic disorder runs in families. If a parent has panic disorder, children are more likely to have panic disorder, too. However, more than half of those with PD do not have a parent with a history of panic disorder. Children who were often scared when separated from their parents are more likely to develop PD later. Other than being hereditary, the causes of panic disorder are not certain.

What are the symptoms of panic disorder?

Detailed information on panic disorder in children and adolescents; including symptoms, treatments and how parents can help their children with anxiety and panic attacksPanic attacks tend to come on suddenly. Children or teens with PD may:

  • cry in fear
  • tremble or shake
  • be short of breath or feel like they are being smothered
  • feel like they are being choked or have trouble swallowing
  • sweat
  • feel their heart pounding
  • feel they are going to die or that they are going crazy
  • feel very helpless to stop the attacks.

Along with these main symptoms, children or teens may:

  • be on guard all the time or startle easily
  • eat very little or become very picky eaters
  • have trouble concentrating due to worry
  • perform below their capabilities in school
  • have frequent headaches or stomachaches
  • have trouble falling or staying asleep, or have nightmares
  • lose interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • talk about death, such as saying "I wish I were dead."

Panic attacks often happen at certain times of day, such as bedtime, or with daily events, for example, going to school. When this is the case, the child often worries as these times approach. The child feels helpless to prevent the attacks.

Last Updated: 17 March 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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