One in eight children is affected by an anxiety disorder. If your child has panic attacks, this expert advice from a therapist will help you keep them strong and resilient.
It’s happening again. Your child is having another panic attack. They’re hyperventilating and shaking. They feel nauseous, tingly, or just plain bad. They’re afraid something terrible is going to happen or that they’re going to die.
What do you do? How do you help your child get through this, and how do you help prevent future panic attacks?
The National Institute of Mental Health states that one in eight children is affected by an anxiety disorder.
While you may feel like you’re alone in trying to figure out your child’s anxiety, the truth is that anxiety disorders are common during childhood—and they’re becoming more common. The National Institute of Mental Health states that one in eight children is affected by an anxiety disorder.
As a therapist and the author of a children’s book featuring a main character with a panic disorder, helping young people with anxiety is near to my heart. Let’s look together at some of the things you can do to help your child before, during, and after a panic attack.
Before a panic attack
If your child has been experiencing panic attacks, here are some steps to take before the next one.
Consider taking your child for a physical to rule out any medical causes for their symptoms. Your pediatrician can also offer treatment recommendations and referrals.
Help your child to maintain a schedule with set times for meals and snacks, proper hydration, physical activity, relaxation, and sleep. Keeping a schedule will decrease your child’s overall anxiety, which will decrease panic attack frequency and intensity.
Keep lines of communication open between you and your child and in your family in general. Get into the habit of talking to your child about their day, their feelings, and their fears.
False alarms happen when our brains believe we’re in danger and give us a burst of energy so that we can run away or fight.
Learn about panic attacks and talk to your child about them. Use simple, straightforward language appropriate to your child’s age. You can describe panic attacks as “false alarms.” These false alarms happen when our brains believe we’re in danger and give us a burst of energy so that we can run away or fight. Reassure your child that while these false alarms can be very uncomfortable and definitely no fun, they will not hurt them. They are not sick or dying or going crazy.
Discuss with your child what their panic attack feels like and identify any situations or things that may contribute to their anxiety. Often, panic attacks do not have clear triggers, but sometimes they do. Help them shift negative self-talk into simple cognitive techniques
Create a coping skills toolbox with your child, like this one. In this box, place items that your child finds soothing or distracting, such as:
- Coloring book and crayons
- Clay or Play-Dough
- Bubblewrap to pop or a stress ball
- A focus object, like a worry stone or a special stuffed animal
- A playlist or CD of soothing music
Make cards that list coping activities (include instructions!) with your child to put in their box as well. But don’t wait until your child is having a panic attack to practice these skills—help your child to practice them now! Some skills you may include:
- Breathing exercises, such as square breathing
- Grounding techniques, such as guided meditations (like these) that help your child relax their body and focus their attention elsewhere. (They can also help them fall asleep!)
Understand that different kids find different coping skills helpful. Whether they want to relax, be distracted, or do something physical like go for a bike ride, let your kid do what works for them.
Help your child develop a positive mantra. This should be a short phrase that feels powerful and positive to your child—ideally, something they come up with. Some ideas are “I can get through this” or “I am safe and strong.”
Immediately prior to a panic attack
Help your child recognize when their anxiety is increasing. You might say, “I’m noticing that you’re starting to wring your hands/breathe faster/hold your stomach. How are you feeling?”
Listen if your child tells you their anxiety is increasing. Noticing their own warning signs and being able to
Help your child use the activities and skills in their coping box to begin to calm down.
During the Panic Attack
Keep calm. This is the single most important thing that you can do. Use your words and body language to communicate that you are there for your child and they can get through this. Your confidence in your child will empower them.
Remind your child that panic attacks do not last forever and will not hurt them.
Encourage coping activities. If your child is not already using some of their coping activities, help them begin to do this. But let them take the lead. You want your child to feel that they are overcoming their anxiety, not that you are doing it for them.
Remind your child of their coping mantra.
After the panic attack
Give your child time to decompress. Panic attacks are emotionally and physically draining.
Process the panic attack with your child. Find a balance between over-focusing on your child’s anxiety and dismissing it as unimportant. Be aware of using language that makes it sound like your child is helpless. You want to acknowledge that panic attacks are difficult while also reassuring your child that they can overcome them.
Talk to your child about avoidance behaviors and how it’s important to continue to do things as usual.
Acknowledge small victories. Did your child recognize their warning signs early on? Did they try to use a coping skill?
Challenging negative thinking is a key part of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is the most effective therapeutic intervention for anxiety disorders.
Continue working with your child to help them shift the harmful self-talk that may accompany panic attacks. Challenging negative thinking is a key part of cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is the most effective therapeutic intervention for anxiety disorders.
Help your child to continue to develop friendships, interests, and hobbies. Talk about these with them. Don’t let their life—or your family—revolve around anxiety.
Seek out help from a mental health professional. Too many people see mental health treatment as a “last resort,” but a therapist can easily evaluate your child and create an effective treatment plan.
Get age-appropriate books related to anxiety for your child. These can be non-fiction books or stories that feature characters who struggle with similar issues. A Novel Mind has a database of books related to different mental health issues, including my newest book, QUINTESSENCE. Seeing characters facing their anxiety can empower your child to do the same.
Make sure you're supported
Get support for yourself. Whether that help takes the form of helpful family and friends or your own therapist, make sure you have a place to share your struggles, fears, and successes.
Make sure you have a place to share your struggles, fears, and successes.
Navigating your child’s anxiety can be difficult, but remember these three things:
- You are not alone
- Panic attacks are a highly treatable mental health issue
- Your child is resilient
Take advantage of the many websites, apps, and books devoted to this topic. Reach out for help and keep doing your best!