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Posted by Michelle Rigg on 01/02/2023

Panic attacks in children and teens – 11 ways to help panicking kids

Panic attacks in children and teens – 11 ways to help panicking kids

Does this sound familiar? 

Your child seems to be enjoying an outing with the family, when all of sudden it seems she begins complaining that she can't breathe, her chest hurts, and she feels like dying.  You are worried that the symptoms she is describing sounds like a heart attack.  You take her to the ER and after multiple tests, the physician tells you that she has had a panic attack.  

Having a panic attack is an intensely distressing experience for children – and their parents. For the child, a panic attack can seem life-threatening, and the physiological symptoms of a panic attack can be very painful. For parents, the instinctive reaction to “fix it” is a strong one, so good job seeking advice and finding this article. Understanding what your child or teen may be going through will allow you to be as prepared as possible if a panic attack occurs. 

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is an intense, physiological occurrence that happens when anxiety builds up to an unmanageable level. The buildup can happen quickly, and a panic attack may occur suddenly without warning. Panic attacks can happen anytime or anywhere and can be triggered by just about anything – a dream, a situation, or even the fear of having a panic attack can lead to a panic attack. 

Panic attacks can feel terrifying, and the painful panic attack symptoms may feel similar to a heart attack. However, a heart attack is much different than a panic attack. Even though a panic attack may only last 15 minutes and is not immediately life threatening, panic attacks are extremely serious, and the side effects can be severely debilitating. 

Panic attacks can cause severe interference with a child’s or teen’s relationships, development, concentration, mental health, confidence, and overall quality of life. Additionally, panic attacks can cause health related problems such as high blood pressure, poor digestion, sleep disorders, etc. 

Symptoms of panic attacks in children and teens

  • Intense fear
  • Shallow breathing or inability to take deep breaths
  • Sweating
  • Freezing or chills 
  • Increase heart rate
  • Chest pain (may be described as heart pain)
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, loss of balance
  • Fainting
  • Shakiness
  • Tingling or numbness of feet or hands
  • Nauseous
  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Difficulty or inability to concentrate 
  • Muscle tension 
  • Increased startle response
  • Feeling of disconnectedness or unreal-ness
  • Feeling like they are going to die 

Sounds terrible, right? It is. Panic attacks are disorienting, painful, and intensely frightening, and those who have panic attacks often believe that they are about to die. Fortunately, there is a lot that you can do to help your child cope with a panic attack. 

Children and panic attacks: How to help a child or teen cope with a panic attack. 

Here are 11 ways parents can help children suffering panic attacks.

1.Educate them about panic attacks. Teach your child about panic attacks. Help them identify and recognize what a panic attack is and what it feels like. Education may not always stop a panic attack from happening, but it can help reduce the duration of a panic attack, and it can also neutralize some of the shocking fear associated with panic attacks.

2. Avoid invalidating their distress. Avoid saying anything like, you’re fine, stop it, or get over it, and especially avoid threats during a panic attack. Instead, validate them. Assure them that panic attacks always come to an end, and let them know it will be over soon. Reassure their most immediate fear by saying that even though it feels scary, their body is going to be ok. Comfort them by helping them take deep breaths, distract them by showing them happy photos on your phone, or encourage them to channel nervous energy into a muscle relaxation exercise.   

3. Comfort with compassion. You may feel as though your child is simply being dramatic, but even if their reaction seems outsized for the situation, the best thing to do is to respond in such a way that shows them you take them seriously. Children – and especially teens – may feel very embarrassed or even ashamed of having a panic attack, which is understandable. Speak in a soothing voice, give them a hug or gentle back pats, and say, “I know you don’t feel okay. Panic attacks can be scary. I am right here, and I will help you through it. Panic attacks always end. It will be over soon.”
Remember: children and teens don’t just “want attention,” they need attention. The best way to respond to and manage expressions of fear is to use the moment as an opportunity to build trust and demonstrate supportive compassion.  

4. Address immediate needs. Do they feel as if the room is closing in on them? Do you suspect sensory overload? Lead them by the hand or carry them outside or to a different room. Are they shivering and cold? Wrap them in a blanket. Are they sweating? Fan them. Are there a bunch of loud noises adding to the distress of the moment? Turn off loud noises and opt for silence or soothing music. 

5. Encourage them to face their fears. Once a child or teen experiences a panic attack, it is common for them to be afraid of having another one, and this fear can become paralyzing. They may not even want to leave the house. Some children and teens may develop agoraphobia which is an irrational (but very real and intense) fear of certain places and situations. Developing a pattern of avoidance only makes fear of panic attacks worse. Have them face their fear but take baby steps. You don’t want to inadvertently trigger another panic attack. For instance, if your child or teen is afraid of driving in a vehicle, just go sit in a parked vehicle for a while. Roll down the windows and have a snack. Next time, drive slowly only around the neighborhood. 

6. Challenge unhelpful thoughts. Panic attacks are often the result of spiraling anxiety, and it is common for a child to assume that their unhelpful thoughts or irrational fears are real. Help them challenge these unhelpful thoughts and fears by saying, “I am a purple puppy.” Not only is it silly and may make them laugh, but they will clearly see that not everything they might think is true. 

If your child is older, help them get curious about their unhelpful thoughts and fears by asking them directly, “Are you confusing a thought with a fact? What is the evidence? Are there any other possibilities? Are there advantages/disadvantages of thinking this way?” Then replace unhelpful thoughts with positive, hopeful thoughts.  

7. Walk them through a grounding exercise. Have them tense up and relax their muscles, or encourage them to use their senses to notice the world around them. How many colors do they see? How many sounds can they hear? Etc.   

8. Develop a happy place. Visualizing something calming or relaxing can be very helpful with combatting fear. Help your child create a safe place in their mind to imagine whenever they feel anxious. Help them have a clear visual of their happy place so that it is easy to visualize. 

9. Model self-care. Children are like sponges, and they often learn more by watching than they do by listening. Pausing to take deep breaths, taking time to prioritize mindfulness exercises, and being compassionate to yourself are great ways to model self-care for anxious children. Actions really do speak louder than words, and if they see you practicing positive coping methods, they will be more inclined to mimic the behavior. 

10. Advocate for them. Regarding teens and panic attacks, there are many myths surrounding panic attacks, and some adolescents and teens may experiment with alcohol or drugs in an attempt to manage or subdue intense anxiety. If you have a teen struggling with panic attacks, avoid letting any teacher, peer, or other adult discredit your teen’s experience as this can make your teen feel lonely and isolated – which only increases risks. 
The experience of panic is new to young people, and it can take time for them to learn how to manage it. Even if you struggle to relate to what your teen is experiencing, do your best to be compassionate and supportive. With both young children and teens, parents are the VIPs of their child’s support system, and being their advocate will help them cope and recover.

11. Know when to get help. Frequent panic attacks can lead to panic disorders or even phobias. Psychotherapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy are two examples of effective treatment solutions for helping children and teens overcome panic attacks. Panic attacks, and even panic disorders, are absolutely treatable, and with appropriate treatment, panic attacks can become a thing of the past. 

Is your child suffering from panic attacks? Are you struggling with supporting them?

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