Panic Attacks in Children: 15 Effective Tips to Help Them
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Panic attacks in children are not just scary for them but also stressful for the parents and caregivers. This is especially so as the onset of panic attacks can be quite sudden. Equipping you and your child with effective skills and methods to overcome panic attacks will enable you to better manage a panic attack when it occurs. 

Recognizing the symptoms of panic attacks

While symptoms of anxiety in children are very similar, there is a subtle difference when we talk about panic attacks. Here, the symptoms can come quite quickly. They can be sudden or triggered by a feared stimulus. Here are several common panic attack symptoms. 

  • Feeling choked
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Increased heart rate or heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Hot/cold flashes
  • Sweating
  • Numbness or tingling in limbs
  • Fear of going crazy
  • Fear of losing control
  • Fear of dying
  • Needing to ‘escape’

15 Effective tips to help a child with panic attack

Here a few effective ways to help a child facing a panic attack:

1. Teach your child about panic attacks

Panic attacks can be really scary for a child. If your child suffers from anxiety, explain to her what a panic attack is before it happens. Tell them that although it might be horrible, panic attacks will always end. 

Also, reassure them that they do not have to worry about their friends laughing at them. Arming your child with this knowledge will help to lessen their fears, concerns and worries because they will know what is going on if a panic attack occurs. 

2. Encourage your child to face their fears

If you notice that your child tends to have panic attacks in certain situations or when faced with certain objects, one of the best ways to help them is to encourage them to face it. For example, if your child is terrified of dogs you can slowly expose him to having dogs around. Start with baby steps – show him pictures of dogs, different breeds. 

You can then move on to showing him a dog in a cage. When he is more comfortable, you can encourage him to pet a small dog and so on. 

This will help your child build confidence as well as realize that they actually do not have to fear the object or situation. Be supportive and encouraging through the process even though it might take a lot of time for them to overcome their fears. Allow your child to learn and process his thoughts and emotions. 

3. Don’t minimize their distress

As parents, it is natural for us to want to reassure our child when they experience a panic attack. We might tell our child ‘You are okay’ with pure intentions, but to a child who is having a panic attack, the last thing they feel is ‘okay’. By doing so, your child might receive the message that you do not understand what they are going through. 

Try to empathize with them instead. For example, you can say “Panic attacks are scary, and I know you don’t feel okay. I will stay with you till it ends and help you through this.

4. Breathing exercises

One of the main symptoms of a panic attack is shortness of breath and/or difficulty breathing. This can cause your child to feel dizzy and have chest pains, which can be a horrible experience to a young child. 

Teaching your child to slow her breath down will not only help reduce panic attack symptoms but also cause the panic attack to pass quicker. Teach her to take a deep breath through her nose and feel her chest expand as they do so. Hold her breath for two seconds before letting it go. 

Practice breathing exercises with your child when she is calm so that she will be able to use this technique when she is having a panic attack. 

5. Muscle Relaxation

When a panic attack occurs, the muscles in the child’s body will tense up. Teaching your child muscle relaxation will help your child to intentionally relax the muscles in her body and thus, reducing anxiety. You can teach your child to do ‘the flop’ – ask your child to imagine that she is a rag doll and relax her whole body. 

6. Stay in control

It is important that you stay in control during your child’s panic attack. This is because your child will most likely feel that she has lost all control. Stay calm and stay with your child. Soothe your child and remind them that the panic attack will end. Coach her to take deep breaths just like she practiced. Give your child space to calm down and rest when the attack is over. Continue to assure her gently. 

7. Challenge negative thinking

One of the factors that cause anxiety disorders is negative and irrational thinking. Panic attacks in children can be triggered by these thoughts. Thus, challenging these thoughts will not only lessen the intensity of the panic attack but may also help in preventing the onset of an attack. Talk to your child about what goes through their mind and help them to think thoughts that are positive. 

8. Help your child to shift focus – Make a list of what helps

When a panic attack occurs, it is likely that all sorts of negative thoughts are going through the child’s mind. Shifting their focus or distracting them might help to soothe and comfort them. It can be anything from watching their favourite tv show, hugging a pet or playing with their favourite toy. 

Sit down with your child and make a list of items that can effectively distract them. This can include places in which they feel calm and relaxed. Having a go to list will better prepare you for when the panic attack happens. Additionally, you can also teach your child to immediately focus on a ‘happy place’ when they feel anxiety coming on. 

9. Teach your child to get help

As a panic attack can be sudden and happen at anyplace and anytime, it is important to teach your child to get help. Let your child’s teachers and caregivers know about their condition so that your child can go to them for help. If there are no familiar adults around, teach your child how to talk to someone who is nearby and explain what is happening when they feel that they are going to have a panic attack. Assure your child that there will always be someone who will help them. 

10. The 54321 Grounding Technique

Grounding techniques can help to calm a person down during a panic attack. When you purposely look for certain items around you, your brain gets to work on recognizing the place around you and thus, shifting your focus from the panic attack and helping you to gain some control of the situation. 

The 54321 grounding technique is a common and simple technique that uses your 5 senses. It can be used anytime anywhere. 

Here’s how it works. All you need to do is:

  • Name 5 things that you can see
  • Name 4 things that you can feel
  • Name 3 things that you can hear
  • Name 2 things that you can smell
  • Name 1 thing that you can taste

At times you can’t really smell or taste anything, so you can replace it with your favourite scents and favourite taste. Teach your child this technique so that she is able to focus on grounding herself rather than the panic attack. 

11. Art Therapy

Art therapy can be done both at a therapy session and at home. This therapy allows children who are unable to communicate verbally to express their feelings and emotions through art. Art in itself can be very soothing and relaxing, and thus, help keep anxieties at bay. 

Just get the art materials ready and you’re all set to have art therapy at home. Allow your child to use the art materials often and encourage her to focus on the creating process. 

12. Deep Pressure Therapy 

Hugging releases anxiety rapidly. Deep pressure therapy uses this by gently applying firm pressure to the body of the anxious person. You can use a pressure garment such as the ‘Snug Vest’ as well as other squeezing products that are specially made to reduce anxiety. If you do not have one, you can try using a rug or a blanket. Roll your child in it gently, just as how you would swaddle a baby. 

13. Remind your child that panic attacks always end

When your child is in the midst of a panic attack, she might not be able to battle the negative thoughts. Remind them that the panic attack will pass even though they feel terrible now. Offering them this hope might lessen the intensity of the panic attack. 

14. Avoid the panic attack trap

A child who experiences a panic attack will become fearful of having another one. She will try to avoid things, activities or situations that she feels could trigger the attack. This means that she may want to avoid school, sports or even birthday parties. Do not let your child fall into this trap as avoidance of the feared stimuli will feed the fear and result in even greater anxiety. It is important for your child to face their fears. 

15. Have an active lifestyle

A healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet can work wonders. Make sure your child gets regular exercise. In fact, if you feel that your child is anxious or worried over something, going for a walk will help to ease the anxiety. 

Regular and balanced meals are important. Avoid processed and sugary food to keep stable blood sugar levels. Doing so will not only ensure healthy physical development but also better moods and emotions.  

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Panic attacks can be very frightening to a child, but there are effective ways in which you can lessen its intensity. Do practice the techniques beforehand and talk to your child about what is happening so that they have an understanding of panic attacks. By doing so, you and your child will be better prepared to face a panic attack when it takes place. 

Also read out articles on “Anxiety treatments for children” and “How to deal with anxiety in children

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