How to Help Your Child with Anxiety Survive a Panic Attack
If your child has ever had a panic attack, you know how unsettling it can be for both of you. As a parent, it can be hard to know how to react. You may feel powerless and confused, unsure of how to help them or wonder if there is something more seriously wrong with them.
Panic attacks are scary for kids and adults alike, but they’re often misunderstood by parents who might not have had one themselves. If you’re worried because your child is experiencing panic attacks, let’s review some things you can do to support your child.
What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is a sudden feeling of acute and disabling anxiety. Panic attacks are actually quite common in children and teens, especially those who have anxiety or other mental health issues such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
In fact, it’s estimated that up to 18% of adolescents experience panic disorder at some point in their lives. Although a panic attack is not a dangerous condition in and of itself, the physical and emotional symptoms that accompany it can be very uncomfortable and distressing for your child.
Symptoms of panic attack in children
Here are some of the more common symptoms of a panic attack:
- Tightness in chest and/or feeling as if they can’t breathe
- Racing heart and pounding in their chest
- Belief that they’re dying or going to pass out
- Thoughts that they’re “going crazy” because they don’t know what’s happening to them and can’t stop it from happening
- Sweating or hot flashes
- Chills or trembling
- Headache or stomachache
- Nausea or fainting
- Hyperventilating or heavy breathing
Why Do Panic Attacks Happen to Children with Anxiety?
There is likely no one single cause of panic attacks. Research suggests that there may be a number of factors that can increase the likelihood of your child experiencing panic attacks.
These factors include:
- Hereditary/genetic factors –having a close relative (such as a parent or sibling) who suffers from panic attacks, makes it more likely that a child will also experience panic attacks
- Phobias – exposure to something they fear may cause children to experience panic attacks
- An existing mental health condition such as anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Short-term emotional triggers such as loss of a loved one or grief
- Low self-esteem
Children can be difficult to read when they’re experiencing a panic attack. They may not be able to express what is going on inside of them, which can make it hard for adults to understand what a panic attack looks like in children.
Ways to Help Your Child with Anxiety Survive a Panic Attack
If you have observed your child having a panic attack, here are some things that can help:
Be calm and reassuring
Don’t make your child feel bad or give them negative feedback about their behavior during a panic attack. Avoid saying things like “It’s just an anxiety attack” or “You’re fine.”
Instead, try something like “I know this feels scary right now, but I’m here with you.” When talking about an episode with your child, always be calm and reassuring.
Make them feel safe, secure, and understood
Let your child know that you understand their feelings. If appropriate, you can tell them that you’ve been through something similar and know what it feels like.
Be patient with your child if they need extra time getting ready for school or other activities–and don’t push too hard! Letting go of expectations will help both of you relax and feel less stressed.
Educate your child on panic attacks
Some children may expect the worst outcome during a panic attack and avoid any possible source of discomfort or fearful situation in order to stay safe. They might also avoid places or scenarios where they could experience a panic attack because they want to avoid being embarrassed in public or at school.
It’s important to let your child know that panic attacks are not dangerous and won’t last forever. If you think it’s helpful, you can compare a panic attack to a wave that they have to surf on. There is a peak where the anxiety is at its worst, but eventually the feeling diminishes and passes. If your child is in the middle of a panic attack, gently remind them that they’re safe and that the anxious feeling will pass.
Help your child identify potential triggers
For some kids and teens, speaking in public, performing in front of others, or certain social situations can be triggers for a panic attack. Helping your child to identify potential triggers and what they might do to lessen the anxiety in those situations is helpful.
It’s also important for parents and teachers to recognize the signs of a panic attack so that they can provide support for their child as soon as possible during an episode.
For example, if your child describes feeling like there is no air around them, this could be a sign that an episode has started, and immediate action should be taken to calm them before things escalate further. Slow deep breathing can be immensely helpful in the moment.
In sum, parents play a crucial role in helping their child cope with panic attacks. These suggestions can decrease the duration and intensity of the attacks and help your child feel better faster.
It’s also recommended that you address the underlying cause of the panic attacks by speaking to a mental health professional. Effective treatments available for anxiety include both therapy and medication.
Begin Online Therapy for Kids and Teens with Anxiety in Illinois and now Florida!
As an experienced and caring therapist, I love providing counseling for anxiety. To start your child’s counseling journey, call me at 224-236-2296 or email Helena@BrieflyCounseling.com to schedule a FREE 20-minute consultation.
Whether you’re on the North Shore, in Naperville, Chicago, Champaign, Barrington, Libertyville, Glenview, or downstate Illinois, I can help.
And effective 2024, I am now licensed in Florida! For parents in Jacksonville, Pensacola, Destin, Crestview, Coral Gables, Weston, Parkland, Naples, Marco Island, and Pinecrest, I have immediate openings.
Schedule your appointment or consultation today. I look forward to working with your child to quickly and effectively help them in activating their strengths, resources, and resilience, in order to live with confidence and hope.