Phobias, panic attacks and post-traumatic stress in children

Phobias, panic attacks and post-traumatic stress in children

Specific phobias in children

Specific phobias are fears of particular things or situations. These fears are quite common in children. Some common childhood phobias include the dark, storms, dogs, spiders, costumed characters like clowns, heights, blood and injections.

Say a child is scared of the dark or of dogs, and he happens to be in a darkened room or facing a barking dog. The child might become very anxious and distressed. As with other anxieties, children with specific phobias will try to avoid the situation they're afraid of. Or they might be extremely distressed if they have to go through it.

Although these anxieties are common, it's a good idea to seek some professional help if your child's fear:

  • is really interfering with your child's daily life
  • is something you feel your child should have grown out of
  • goes on for longer than six months.

Panic attacks in children

Panic attacks are a sudden rush of fear accompanied by physical feelings like a racing heart, breathlessness, tightness in the throat or chest, sweating, light-headedness and/or tingling. During a panic attack, children might believe that they're dying or that something terrible is happening to them.

These kinds of episodes are quite rare in young children and become more common in teenagers.

Panic disorder
The fear of or anxiety about having panic attacks is known as panic disorder. For children with panic disorder, the fear is of the panic attack itself rather than of the situation. This means that children are afraid of their panic symptoms, rather than of the things that cause anxiety, like people laughing at them, dogs biting them or getting lost.

Panic disorder is very uncommon in young children and younger teenagers. It happens more often in older teenagers and young adults.

If children start avoiding situations because of their panic attacks, this is called panic disorder with agoraphobia. If this happens, it's worthwhile seeking professional help.

Post-traumatic stress in children

Post-traumatic stress is a reaction to a severe traumatic event in which a child was hurt or felt extremely scared or threatened. Events that might trigger these reactions include:

  • natural disasters
  • personal attacks
  • car accidents
  • sexual, physical and emotional abuse.

Children who have been affected by a traumatic event usually show some anxiety for a few weeks afterwards. The anxiety then gradually disappears.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
In some cases, children suffer anxiety for many months and years after a traumatic event. This can interfere with their daily lives. This might be post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Children with PTSD might keep remembering the traumatic event or have bad dreams about it, perhaps even including the trauma in their play. They might suddenly act or feel as if the event is happening again and get very upset. They often try hard to avoid situations that remind them of the trauma and might become emotionally distant. They might be jumpy or irritable and have sleep difficulties.

After a traumatic event, you or your child might need support, and children suffering PTSD usually need professional help. You can read more about first response to trauma and supporting children in the weeks after trauma.

Professional help

You know your child best. If you're worried about your child's behaviour or anxieties, consider seeking professional help. Here are some places to start:

  • your child's school counsellor
  • your child's GP or paediatrician (who might refer you to a child psychologist)
  • your local children's health or community health centre
  • a specialist anxiety clinic (present in most states).

Financial support for children with anxiety
Your child might be able to get government funding to access a psychologist for individual or group sessions. Talk to your GP about the best option for your child.

Visit Australian Psychological Society - Find a psychologist to find professional services near you.