How to Help a Child Having a Panic Attack
Children get anxious about many things – exams, a school debate, going for an overnight stay, meeting new people. These are normal anxieties in a child’s life, and parents can help empower kids to overcome their worries in simple ways. But sometimes, anxiety overcomes a child, and a furrowed brow crosses the line into a full-blown panic attack. While it can be almost as frightening to watch as to experience, it’s important for parents to learn how to deal with panic attacks.
The first rule for a parent’s response is: Don’t panic. It is possible to help your child get through a panic attack and help him or her take up practices toward preventing a future panic attack. And if your child continues to struggle with panic attacks, there is always professional help.
What is a panic attack?
A panic attack is an acute anxiety attack with increased heart rate, sweating, trembling, dizziness, nausea and other gastro problems, difficulty breathing or a choking feeling. These physical symptoms can inspire in the sufferer a fear of dying, losing control of his mind or a feeling unreality, which can further exacerbate the physical symptoms. Typically, panic attacks are very self-limiting, which means they come out of the blue, last for a few minutes and then end.
What causes panic attacks?
Severe anxiety – of which a person, particularly a child, may be unaware – can trigger panic attacks. High levels of stress at home, or stressful life events – like the death of a loved one, or shifting schools or homes – can lead to the development of panic attacks.
Who experiences panic attacks?
Panic attacks aren’t common, but they typically manifest in young adults in their early 20s. However, it’s possible for a child as young as 12 to struggle with panic attacks. This could be due to many factors: There is some thought that children who have anxious parents may model their parents’ anxious behavior as well as have a genetic risk.
In some cases, a child’s temperament may be naturally averse to experiencing new stimuli, and consequently highly stressed by new experiences. There is also a correlation between separation anxiety disorder in children and a panic disorder in adolescents.
How to deal with panic attacks?
First, remain calm. If your child sees you becoming scared of upset, it may worsen the experience for him or her. They may take your emotional reaction as confirmation that they are, in fact, dying or losing their mind.
Help your child focus on taking deep, slow breathes. Speak to him and reassure him that you are with him, that a panic attack is temporary, that he is OK, and that he can control his breathing.
Can panic attacks be prevented?
Just because a child has one panic attack doesn’t mean there will be more. But panic attacks typically leave sufferers, particularly children, with anticipatory anxiety – what if it happens again? This may lead a child to avoid situations which she thinks could trigger the panic attack, or cling to a “safe” person wherever she goes, or become house-bound. It may also become a vicious cycle: Anxiety about a potential panic attack may lead to an actual panic attack.
Deep breathing exercises and muscle relaxation techniques have been known to help ease the anxiety that is the underlying cause of panic attacks. These exercises may prevent panic attacks but, more importantly, give the child tools with which to respond during a panic attack. But to be effective in the moment, they need to be done at least once a day.
Practices like yoga and meditation can also be helpful in dealing with anxiety, as they clear the mind and focus breathing.
What if a child continues to have panic attacks?
If your child continues to struggle with panic attacks, seeing a therapist or psychologist is the next step. As I tell my patients: Panic disorder is the easiest and quickest disorder to treat if a timely diagnosis is made. While the term ‘disorder’ is used to describe routine panic attacks, it doesn’t mean anything is ‘wrong’ with the person or child who suffers from them. It simply means they need help managing their anxiety – and don’t we all, sometimes?
A counsellor or psychologist trained in cognitive behaviour therapy can be of immense help to a child learning how to deal with panic attacks. Anxiety is brought on by anxious thoughts; cognitive behaviour therapy helps children identify these thoughts and change them to be more positive, thus reducing anxiety.
A counsellor or psychologist can also help guide a child in relaxation and breathing exercises in a more structured manner, giving her better tools and a safe environment in which to face stressful stimuli.
Finally, there are several medications that can help treat panic disorder, but these are typically reserved for severe cases of anxiety, unalleviated by therapy.
Panic attacks, though scary, are not the end of the world. With support from parents and, if necessary, from mental health professionals, a child will be just fine.