It can be extremely distressing to watch someone you love have a panic attack. For parents there is the added stress of trying to help children get through the experience without physical harm. Learning about child panic attacks and how to cope with them can help ease parents' worries.
How do you Know when your Child is having an Attack?
It is not always easy to recognize the signs of child panic attacks, simply because a young child does not have the vocabulary to describe the feelings he or she is experiencing. However, there are several physical and mental signs that can provide clues.
During a panic attack, a child might do one or more of the following:
- Start trembling, shaking, or sweating
- Be unable to breathe normally (for example the child might hyperventilate or breathe very rapidly)
- Lose bowel or bladder control
- Have a racing or pounding heart
- Express fear of dying or going crazy
- Act aggressively to try and "escape"
Helping your Child Through It
During the first panic attack a parent's instinct is usually to take the child to the nearest emergency clinic. This is absolutely fine, and is even necessary to ensure that the child's symptoms do not have another cause.
In the case of subsequent episodes, there are lots of ways that parents and caregivers can help.
- Above all, try to appear calm, patient, and relaxed, even if you are terrified on the inside. Children become more panicked if they see their parents are frightened too.
- Use a firm, confident tone of voice, but don't shout.
- Tell the child you understand how she or is feeling, but add reassurance that you will keep them safe especially if specific fears are mentioned, such as a fear of dying.
- Try breathing techniques such as deep breathing. Make sure the child breathes slowly and deeply to avoid hyperventilation.
- Try simple relaxation techniques such as muscle tension and relaxation. For example, ask the child to wrinkle his or her nose, shrug shoulders, or lift legs off the floor.
- Talk about a favorite memory, such as a birthday or picnic, or sing songs or rhymes. Don't worry if your child does not join in talking or singing; your voice is providing a soothing distraction even if there is no or little response.
- Be aware of cues that come from the child. For example, some children want to be held, but some might feel claustrophobic and prefer to sit in a chair or lie down.
- Whatever your child prefers, make sure he or she is not left alone, and ensure they know you are close by to help.
How to Help Afterwards
Your child will need lots of reassurance and comfort after the panic attack is over. Depending on age, they might want to hold a favorite toy or blanket, hear a favorite story, or have a hot drink.
Muscle tension and other symptoms that develop during a panic attack lead to fatigue afterwards, so your child might want to rest quietly or even sleep. Many children are afraid of being alone after a panic attack, so it is important that a caregiver remain close by.
Talking with the child about the panic attack is also important, to help him or her understand what happened. While most children never have more than one, they do remember the event as being particularly frightening, and might attempt to avoid certain locations and situations that have become associated with the attack. Some develop separation anxiety or another type of anxiety such as agoraphobia as a result of panic attacks.