Agoraphobia: What to Look for and How to Help

That happy-go-lucky teen in your classroom is suddenly avoiding situations that they once found enjoyable. Maybe they love performing but recently turned down an opportunity to audition for the school play. Or maybe you’ve noticed they seem agitated or upset while waiting in line or in a large group. Perhaps they are taking more sick days, even though they seem healthy enough overall, or refusing to take Driver’s Ed classes. What you may be seeing are signs of a mental health condition known as agoraphobia.

What is Agoraphobia?

Agoraphobia, which means the fear of being in public spaces, is a term used to describe the intense fear a person experiences when exposed to a threatening situation, along with the tendency to avoid situations or environments the person perceives as threatening. Often this fear is directed towards public places (or being away from home) because the person is afraid they may be trapped or unable to escape. Often, individuals with agoraphobia are afraid they might have a panic attack or experience intense anxiety and will be trapped. For example, they may be afraid that they will experience a panic attack at a concert or on the bus and that they will be unable to get out of the crowd or off the bus to calm down. And so they avoid all bus rides and concerts because the fear has grown so strong.

Symptoms of Agoraphobia

The symptoms of agoraphobia, according to the Merck Manual, are characterized by intense anxiety, either before a particular activity or during the activity, for a period of at least six months. The student will likely try to avoid being in situations that they fear, and that can impact their ability to go to school and/or work, as well as other areas of functioning. For example, a parent may mention to you that their teen now avoids leaving home to spend time with friends (something they used to do frequently) and may avoid participating in any activities that require them to be away from home. According to this report from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), refusing to go to school is the most common way agoraphobia shows up in children and adolescents.

Common activities that individuals with agoraphobia fear, according to the Merck Manual, include:

  • Using public transportation

  • Being in open spaces (such as a large city square or field)

  • Being in enclosed spaces (such as a movie theater)

  • Standing in line or being in a crowd

  • Being outside the home alone

Clients that I have worked with who experience agoraphobia are often afraid of dark or small enclosed spaces. For example, several clients have shared with me that they are afraid to drive because they fear having a panic attack while being stuck in traffic. They will go to great lengths to avoid driving, which can severely their daily life. Others have shared that they are afraid of having a panic attack in a movie theater, even though it has never happened, and so they avoid going to the movies even if it means missing out on a movie night with friends.

According to the ADAA, children and adolescents who experience agoraphobia may have already had a panic attack in the situation they are trying to avoid; they avoid that situation now to avoid a repeat of that frightening experience. A panic attack is characterized by intense anxiety and may include these symptoms:

  • Intense fearfulness

  • Racing heart

  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded

  • Experiencing shortness of breath

  • Trembling

  • Sense of unreality

  • Fear of dying, losing control, or going crazy

How Common is Agoraphobia in Kids and Teens?

Agoraphobia is fairly uncommon in younger kids but becomes more common in during adolescence. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) estimates that about 2.4% of adolescents between 13 and 18 experience agoraphobia, and it’s more prevalent among girls (3.4%) than boys (1.4%). For most, that first onset of agoraphobia and panic disorder is typically in late adolescence.

Certain factors can increase a child or teen’s risk for experiencing agoraphobia including:

  • Being diagnosed with a panic disorder or other phobia

  • Responding with intense fear and excessive avoidance after experiencing a panic attack

  • Experiencing traumatic life events such as abuse, death of a loved one, or being attacked

  • Having an anxious or nervous temperament

  • Having a blood relative with agoraphobia


According to the Merck Manual, behavioral therapy is most helpful for agoraphobia, as it helps children and teens learn ways to cope with their anxiety. The result is that they learn effective ways to go into situations and environments they once feared without experiencing intense anxiety. They will also learn strategies to help them manage a panic attack should it occur. A psychotherapist is often the best place to find these effective techniques.

Agoraphobia can severely impact a child’s quality of life, especially if they are avoiding school and other activities outside the home. However, agoraphobia doesn’t have to hold them back from enjoying their childhood and teen years. Knowing the signs and symptoms of agoraphobia, and standing ready to advise the family on how to find the best form of treatment, is a crucial role that you as an educator can take.

Julia Marie Hogan

Julia Marie Hogan is a counselor in Chicago and owner of Vita Optimum Counseling & Consulting, LLC. She also leads workshops and writes on topics related to self-care, relationships and mental health. Her book, It's Ok to Start with You is all about the power of embracing your authentic self through self-care. She is passionate about empowering individuals to be their most authentic selves. You can find more of her writing online at

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The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.