Question: My child recently had a frightening spell of dizziness, racing heart, shaking and nausea. Our doctor checked him out and said everything is fine, it was just a "panic attack." What are panic attacks? Does having one panic attack mean that my tween is going to have anxiety problems from here on out?
Answer: This is a question many parents of tweens and teens have. As you described, a panic attack is an episode of physical arousal with no clear physiological cause. In addition to the dizziness, shaking, nausea and pounding heart you described, panic attacks may also include sweating, chills, chest pain and/or hot flashes. Many people say that it feels like they're having a heart attack. Although experiencing a panic attack is scary, it actually passes relatively quickly, peaking within 10 minutes or so. After an attack is over, the child may feel shaken up, but is generally fine and able to resume normal activities immediately.
While there are no clear stats for the number of tweens and teens who suffer from panic attacks, they may be fairly common. Although panic attacks often occur when a child is under high stress (such as leading up to an important exam or when family tensions run high), they can occur with no clear trigger at all. The fluctuations in hormones that preteens and teens experience may make panic attacks more likely to randomly occur at these ages.
If your tween seems to have experienced a panic attack, the best thing to do is to consult a doctor, as you did. The doctor can rule out serious physiological causes that might create similar symptoms.
Once you know you're dealing with an actual panic attack, you can rest assured that it was probably an isolated incident. Having a single panic attack is not highly alarming and does not indicate that a tween will be more likely to develop an anxiety disorder in the future. If, however, your child experiences more panic attacks, becomes distressed and/or shows disruptions in eating and sleeping patterns, contact your child's doctor for further evaluation. About 1 to 2% of adolescents develop panic disorder, which includes frequent panic attacks, worry over having future attacks and avoidance of situations that might bring on attacks. Panic disorder requires treatment with psychotherapy and/or medication.
Mash, Eric J., and Wolfe, David A. Abnormal Child Psychology, 3rd edition. 2004. Florence, KY: Wadsworth.
Warner, Lynn A., and Bott, Cynthia. "Epidemiology of Mental Disorders in Girls and Female Adolescents." In A Public Health Perspective Of Women's Mental Health, B. L. Levin and M. A. Becker (Eds.). 2010. New York: Springer.