(See also Overview of Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents and Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder in adults.)
Panic disorder is much more common among adolescents than among younger children. Sometimes children have separation anxiety or generalized anxiety when they are younger and then develop panic disorder as they go through puberty.
Panic attacks can occur in any anxiety disorder, usually in response to the focus of that disorder. For example, children with separation anxiety may have a panic attack when a parent leaves. Children who fear being trapped in places with no way to escape easily (agoraphobia) may have a panic attack when they are seated in the middle of a row in a crowded auditorium. Many children who have panic disorder also have agoraphobia.
Physical disorders, such as asthma, can also trigger panic attacks, and panic attacks can trigger asthma.
During a panic attack, children feel great anxiety, which causes physical symptoms. The heart beats rapidly. Children may sweat profusely and feel short of breath. They may have chest pain or feel dizzy, nauseated, or numb. Children may feel like they are dying or going crazy. Things may seem unreal to them. Symptoms may be more dramatic (involving screaming, weeping, or hyperventilating) than they are in adults.
Children may worry about having other attacks. Panic attacks and the associated worries interfere with relationships and schoolwork.
In panic disorder, panic attacks usually occur on their own, with no specific trigger. But over time, children begin to avoid situations that they associate with the attacks. This avoidance can lead to agoraphobia, which makes children reluctant to go to school, visit the mall, or do other typical activities.
Panic disorder often worsens and lessens for no apparent reason. Symptoms may disappear on their own, then recur years later. But with treatment, most children with panic disorder improve.
Occasionally, when panic disorder is not treated, adolescents drop out of school, withdraw from society, and become reclusive and suicidal.
Doctors diagnose panic disorders when children
Thus, doctors usually do a physical examination to check for physical disorders that may be causing the symptoms.
Usually, a combination of drugs and behavioral therapy is effective for panic disorder. In some children, drugs are frequently needed to control the panic attacks before behavioral therapy can begin.
Benzodiazepines are the most effective drugs, but a type of antidepressant called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are often preferred because benzodiazepines cause drowsiness (sedation), may interfere with learning and memory, and may result in dependence.