Few surprises can be harder on parents than when their child unexpectedly suffers from panic attacks. Your child’s heart is racing, they are hyperventilating, and you feel helpless. But your child needs you now more than ever—here are some ways you can help.
More important than anything else, you need to remain calm. This will not only help you to take care of your child, but it will also help them feel safe, which will allow them to recover far more quickly.
It is important to ensure that when your child is in school or another location where you are not present, your child has someone to go to who can make them feel safe and calm as well. Optimally, this would be an adult familiar with panic attacks. However, it could be one of the child’s friends or another person who is confident and ready to help.
Provide Reassurance During Panic Attacks
If you haven’t experienced a panic attack, you may not know how terrifying the symptoms are. Many children think they are going to die, and it’s up to you to reassure them that they are not in danger.
Tell your child it’s their body’s way of protecting them because it thinks that there is danger nearby. Also, tell them that although it feels horrible, it isn’t dangerous and they will begin to feel better soon.
Help Your Child Regulate Their Breathing
Next, you should help your child to breathe slowly and deeply, and the best way to do this is by example. Breath in slowly for around five seconds—all the way down to your belly, not just into the upper chest. Then, release it in a slow and steady manner, trying to make it take just a bit longer than the inhale.
After demonstrating this, ask your child to do it with you. Help your child to synchronize their breathing with your own and keep going for a minimum of five minutes. This kind of breathing can help send safety signals to the brain, helping your child to relax.
Help “Ground” Your Child
After using the breathing exercises for several minutes, begin “grounding” your child by asking them questions that make use of the five senses to build awareness of what is around them.
To start with, ask your child what they can hear—start generally, and then ask them if there is one particular sound they can point out. Next, move to touch and ask what they can feel. This could be the ground under them, a chair, or even your child’s own clothing. Sometimes it can be nice to offer them something nearby that will feel good against the skin, such as soft clothing, a blanket, or anything pleasant.
Next, move on to sight, and ask your child what they can see. Your child may struggle with this sense, and in this case, it can be good to talk them through it in a gentle and curious way. Afterward, you can continue with smell and taste if there are good opportunities to use these senses present.
Sit with Your Child
At this point, just sit down together and wait for the panic attack to pass. Regularly remind your child to keep their breathing slow and deep. Make sure your child is breathing deep into their belly and gradually emptying it as they breathe out.
If these strategies don’t seem to be helping, it is recommended you talk to your child’s general practitioner. They may suggest assessment by a mental health specialist. Panic attacks are often caused by stress and anxiety, and if social situations seem to be a part of this stress, the Social Skills Center may be able to help. We offer online coaching sessions to help reduce your child’s anxiety from dealing with social situations.
Panic attacks are scary for the parent as well as the child. But don’t worry, both of you will get through it! With time, you can help your child to build coping mechanisms that will help them reduce the intensity of the attacks and get over them quicker. Just keep calm and remain patient.