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How to Deal with Panic Disorders in Children

written by: BettyHolt • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 1/5/2011

An estimated 3 million Americans will experience panic disorder sometime during their lifetime. This anxiety disorder can start in childhood and tends to run in families. Panic disorders in children are treatable, but it is best if are caught early. Suggestions for dealing with it are covered here.

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    Panic Attacks

    According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the symptoms of a panic attack: racing or pounding heartbeat, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, and a sense that something terrible is happening. Parents should watch for the following behaviors: anxious or agitated mood, wetting the bed, throwing tantrums and screaming, and physical ailments without a valid cause.

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    Psychological Treatment

    Tips for treating panic disorders in children usually fall into the following categories, according to school psychiatry program at Massachusetts General Hospital: psychological interventions, biological interventions, and changes at home and school to reduce the child's sources of stress.

    Counseling is useful for helping the child to understand that he or she doesn't have a flawed personality, but a condition caused by complex genetic and environmental factors. Counseling can help reduce the severity of symptoms on daily life.

    Individual psychotherapy is often the first line of defense against panic disorder. Children may experience a sense of failure, as if they were somehow the cause, but psychotherapy can help reduce these feelings.

    Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches children the skills to reduce the anxiety which leads to panic attacks. The child is taught to become aware of negative feelings and to stop them before they become full-blown attacks as well as how to incorporate new ways of thinking to prevent future attacks.

    Family therapy may help when there are issues affecting the whole family, while group psychotherapy allows the child to react with others with the same problem and not feel so alone.

    School-based counseling helps the child deal with the school setting.

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    Biological Interventions

    Sometimes psychological interventions alone are not enough to treat panic disorders in children. Both antidepressants and benzodiazepines are used. Common antidepressants include Celexa, Lexapro, Luvox, Paxil, Prozac and Zoloft, while benzodiazepines include Ativan, Klonopin and Xanax.

    Careful monitoring of any medication is recommended. Parents should watch out for increased agitation, restlessness, irritability or talk about self-harm. The FDA now recommends weekly follow-up for the first month a child is on an antidepressant.

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    Tips for Home Interventions

    Caring adults can help the child manage difficult symptoms at home by educating themselves about the nature of panic disorder and the child's struggles. It is important they become good listeners and able to keep calm and be a comforting presence during an attack. They can remind the child that he or she survived the last attack, while anticipating when the child might have future troubles and be prepared for them.

    Teaching the child relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or visualizing going to a safe place can improve their sense of control. Praising their successes helps them feel as though they are making progress. Parents can also talk with teachers at school and let them know about the problem so they can become allies for the child and accommodate his or her specific needs in the school situation.