It can be difficult to notice panic attacks in young children, because they cannot find the words to tell someone what they are feeling. Most adults have a hard time telling someone about their panic attacks, or even knowing what is happening to them. It is important to know the signs and symptoms.
Anxiety in Children
Some anxiety in life is perfectly normal and kids go through different phases of it for different reasons. For example, toddlers will usually experience separation anxiety when parents leave for a little while. Toddlers and young children from 3-5 usually develop fears of the dark, monsters or bugs. Shy kids will withdraw from new activities, people and situations. Tweens and teens start to develop fears of death, injury and public speaking. These are all "normal" anxieties kids will most likely experience. However, some children (10-15%, according to Merck) will experience an anxiety disorder. This could include panic disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social phobia, or specific phobia.
Panic Attacks in Young Children
A panic attack is "a brief period of intense fear or discomfort accompanied by distinct symptoms", according to Massachusetts General Hospital, School Psychiatry Program and MADI Resource Center. Panic attacks are frightening, but many children will not develop an anxiety disorder from having one. Many people do experience one panic attack without ever having another one. However, you may notice that your child is displaying these symptoms on a continuous basis. Many parents or teachers will overlook panic attacks in young children by saying that the child is just shy, or something to that nature. Panic attacks are highly treatable, but will only get worse if left untreated.
Symptoms of Panic Attacks in Young Children
Symptoms of panic attacks can include:
- heart palpitations
- chest pain
- feeling disconnected from oneself
- fear of dying
- hot or cold flashes
- feeling short of breath
- fear of losing control
Kids can experience some or all of these symptoms during a panic attack, which can last up to 10 minutes, sometimes longer. I remember going to my mom during the night because I would wake up scared and I was concerned about my heart beating too fast. However, I didn't tell her I was also having trouble breathing, I was scared I was going to die, I was shaking, and I felt like I was disconnected from myself. Kids may not understand what is happening to them, and they may not put the symptoms together into one category.
Helping Young Children with Panic Attacks
Whether you are a teacher, a caregiver, or a parent you should recognize the signs and symptoms of panic attacks in young children. If you, your spouse, your relatives, or your spouse's relatives have an anxiety disorder you should especially be on the lookout for panic attacks in kids. It often runs in families.
How do you tell?
Since kids may not be able to fully express their feelings so you have to watch for the physical symptoms. These could be sweating, shaking, trembling, and/or difficulty breathing. Children will also "show" panic attacks in other ways such as not wanting to go to school. They might tell you they have a stomach ache (or even get stomach aches from the anxiety) to get out of going to school. You might get calls from the school nurse saying that your child is complaining of a stomach ache and wants to come home. While a panic attack cannot kill your child; it can cause some serious symptoms, including that stomach ache. Other symptoms might be vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, trouble making decisions, headaches, and trouble concentrating.
What to do
If you think your child is experiencing panic attacks go to your family physician. Your child should see a psychiatrist or counselor and get proper treatment for the panic attacks. Treat it now before it turns into a debilitating anxiety disorder. If you are a teacher or school nurse and see a child like this you should let the parents know. Panic attacks are treatable.
"Childhood and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders", by William T. Goldman, M.D., published in keepkidshealthy.com
"Anxiety Disorders in Children and Adolescents", published in Merck
"Panic Disorder in Children and Teens", published in Massachusetts General Hospital, School Psychiatry Program and MADI Resource Center