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How can you recognize panic attacks in children, how should you help your child through a panic attack, and what are the best long-term treatments?

Parents who suspect that their child has been suffering from panic attacks will want to know both how to recognize them and what to do next. Those who already know their child is suffering from an anxiety disorder or isolated panic attacks will, meanwhile, want to find out how they can reduce panic attacks and anxiety in children

What do you do while your child is having a panic attack — and what long-term treatments are most likely to help them disappear altogether?


Recognizing Panic Attacks In Children

A panic attack can be described as an episode of acute anxiety and fear, accompanied by a fear of losing control, losing one's mind, or dying — in a context where this reaction is objectively excessive. Children going through a panic attack may experience labored breathing, a racing heart, sweating, cold and clammy hands, the urge to vomit or urinate, a dry mouth, and have a "lump in their throat". They may also feel dizzy and shaky, actually tremble, and have tense muscles, and the episode may last from seconds to hours. [1] Depending on the child's age and temperament, they may or may not be able to describe their symptoms later on, and they may scream, cry, or be quiet. 

Although some people experience isolated panic attacks without meeting the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder, panic attacks are most strongly associated with panic disorder [2]. 

Parents who believe that their children are suffering from panic attacks on a regular basis, but have not yet sought medical help or obtained a diagnosis will want to be aware of the symptoms of panic disorder [3]: 

  • Recurrent panic attacks. 
  • Living in fearful anticipation of another panic attack. 
  • A significant negative impact on the child's quality of life as a result of panic attacks. 

Panic disorder is also strongly linked to agoraphobia (a fear of public places) [4] and social phobia [5], and increases the risk that a person will suffer from suicidal thoughts [6].

Pediatric psychologists and psychiatrists are, along with primary care providers and social workers, a good first point of call for anxiety in children if you do not yet have a diagnosis. 

How To Help Your Child Through A Panic Attack

Hyperventilation — breathing too deeply and rapidly — is a frequent feature of panic attacks. As such, deep and deliberate breathing exercises are frequently recommended for people in the middle of panic attacks. One such technique is to count five seconds while inhaling during abdominal breathing, hold the breath for two seconds, and then deliberately exhale for a further five seconds. Respiratory control techniques have been found to reduce the frequency of panic attacks significantly. [7]

Parents can assist their anxious children with respiratory control techniques by breathing and counting with them. 

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) further recommends that parents remain calm while their child has a panic attack, in order to prevent them from panicking more, and to simply inform their anxious child that they are experiencing a panic attack — something that helps them accept the reality that they are not facing a physically catastrophic situation. In addition, you can encourage your child to return to now-feared places where they have already experienced panic attacks; a form of home-made exposure therapy if you like. [8]

Long-Term Treatment Options For Childhood Panic Disorder

When your child is struggling through a panic attack, that is of course all you can think of, and arming yourself with strategies to help your child get through their acute fear and anxiety will indeed offer them comfort as well as possibly reducing the frequency of their panic attacks. However, where panic attacks have been determined to be part of a wider childhood anxiety disorder such as separation anxiety in children, generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, or panic disorder, maximum symptom relief can be achieved through long-term treatment. 

Cognitive behavorial therapy has been shown to be very effective in treating anxiety disorders in children, with pharmacological treatment — generally in the form of SSRI antidepressants — offering a valuable additional option in children who do not respond well to talk therapy alone. [9]

Many parents are instinctively resistant to medicating their children, especially considering the fact that the Food and Drug Administration has warned that antidepressants can lead to increased suicidal thoughts in young people [10]. Natural remedies for anxiety disorders in children for which there is evidence that they are effective in some people include St Johns Wort and valerian root (particularly in combination), massage, dance therapy, and regular exercise. Book therapy may also help those with specific phobias reduce their anxiety and panic attacks. [11]

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