Helping your child cope with panic attacks

Dr Bijal Chheda-Varma, clinical psychologist at Nightingale Hospital, shares her tips on how to help a child who is experiencing panic attacks.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is an exaggeration of the normal response to fear, stress or excitement. It’s the rapid build-up of overwhelming sensations, such as a pounding heartbeat, feeling faint, sweating, nausea, chest pains, breathing discomfort and shaky limbs.

How can I tell if my child is having a panic attack?

There are some common signs that your child may be displaying.

  • Withdrawal from play or other activities.
  • Hyperventilating and crying.
  • Becoming inconsolable at times.
  • An increased heart rate and sweaty palms and feet.
  • Widened pupils.
  • Appearing quite clingy.
  • Before and after the attack, they may be easily startled and have small ongoing anxieties.

*Displaying one, or more, of these signs does not necessarily mean that your child is having panic attacks. It is worth making an appointment with their GP if you have any concerns.

How can I help prevent them from experiencing panic attacks?

  • Try and reduce your child’s exposure to stressful situations as much as possible. It’s worth noting that this is only relevant if your child is already having panic attacks.
  • Encourage them to express their needs. Make sure they feel as though they have someone to confide in so that they don’t bottle up their emotions.
  • Help them make healthy lifestyle changes such as: doing regular exercise; avoiding stimulants such as coffee; making sure they’re eating regular meals and avoiding too much sugar and processed food and drink to help keep their blood sugar levels stable.
  • You may want to consider cognitive behavioural therapy. Talking treatments, self-help books or doing your own research into anxiety management courses can help you understand why it may be happening and help your child develop more coping strategies.
  • Joining support groups can allow them to share their feelings and discuss coping strategies.
  • Try out some relaxation techniques together such as listening to calming music and deep breathing.
  • Show them how they can breathe from their diaphragm. With hands on stomach, slowly breathe in through the nose while counting to four. The stomach should rise. Breathe out, to a count of four, and the stomach should collapse.
  • Tell your child to try and focus on the positive. If they feel an attack coming on, tell them to practise distraction techniques with positive thoughts.

How can I help them while the panic attack is happening?

  • Sit your child down and offer them a cool or warm drink.
  • Soothe their senses — cuddle them, play some calming music, show them visually pleasant images, use YouTube calming videos and/or download relaxation apps.
  • Take some deep breaths together to help them regulate their breathing.
  • Remind them to focus on distraction techniques and positive thoughts.
  • Try to reassure them gently and let them know that they’re going to be ok and that however horrible this feels now, it will pass. If they can learn to accept this, they may be able to let the feelings wash over them and the next time it happens it could be less intense.

What can I do in the long-term? Where can I get support?

  • You may want to take them to see their GP and eventually a local CAMHS team (Child and adolescent mental health services.).
  • Try to understand the pattern of triggers — what comes before each panic attack.
  • Explore what the trigger means to your child. If they’re young and unable to express themselves through words, use creative methods such as drawing to help them ‘make sense of the trigger’.
  • The following website has numerous useful resources for the management of panic.

Further reading

Understanding and supporting anxiety in your child

Stigma and mental health: a parent’s guide

Talking to your child about suicidal thoughts

 

The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or NCA-CEOP.

First published: January 2018

 

 

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