Panic Attacks in Kids
Recently, my child had something that resembled a panic attack (or anxiety attack). Her heart was racing, her breathing was heavy and fast, and she was inconsolable as she cried, telling me that she didn't know what was wrong or what she was feeling. She had just started to work on a reading practice activity, and as usual, she was frustrated that she wasn't meeting her fluency goal on the first or second tries. I believe this was the trigger, but the weight of all the other things (I'm sure) was a big factor and what may have taken her over the edge. Frankly, had I realized it was a panic attack in the moment, I wouldn't had know what to do. But I responded to what I was seeing and thankfully, it worked.
She is seven years old. She throws fits. Each time it happens these days, I just let her escape to her room to scream into her pillow and do whatever she needs to do to let out her feelings in less harmful ways than kicking a dead horse trying to get what she wants out of me. As long as she's not hurting herself, someone else, or our property, I let her privately express herself in whatever way she needs to without barging into her room. She will eventually reemerge, hug me, and we are able to talk at that point without arguing.
This time was different, though. She was in the room for four or five minutes and the pace of her breathing and the intensity of her crying were not changing. It was very different from previous times. And it wasn't until later that I went to the Mayo Clinic website and looked up, "panic attacks," that I realized how closely this experience resembled one. However, as similar as it was, I've concluded that this was either a mild one or not one at all. The difference that stands out is that my daughter was not afraid of anyone or anything at the moment: she was just overwhelmed with emotions and didn't know what to do with them.
As I mentioned, I would not had known what to do in the moment had my brain identified the situation as a panic attack. What really helped my daughter out was me being able to compare this experience to her previous behavior and seeing that there was something different here. And though it might not have been a panic attack at all, my response was appropriate.
Here's what I recommend based on my experience and brief research (see links below). I encourage you to ask doctors and do your own research and not take just take my word for it.
Know your child: Build a relationship with your child. Know them, their habits, their quirks, and their regular responses to things. This is a huge tool that will help you support them in every phase of their lives.
Quickly get out of your emotions: In the moment, you might be stressed out, but don't stay there. Pay attention to the details of how your child is acting. How is it different from previous times?
Get off the topic and focus on what's happening: This isn't the time to continue the argument or to start a conversation. The kid's scared and/or overwhelmed. They cannot intake more information at this moment. Focus on what they're feeling right at that moment.
Guide them through those physical feelings: With my child, I sat next to her and invited her to lie down with me. I held her close so that she could feel my breathing tempo. I talked her through her breathing in a slow calming manner. I told her she's safe, she's loved, and that she will be okay. It took about three minutes for her to get her breathing under control. I gently praised her saying, "Good, sweety. You did well. Just breathe. I love you so much." Eventually, I could feel her weight shift and she fell asleep within a couple of minutes.
Call a professional: Either during or immediately after, call a doctor or on-call nurse. Let them know what happened. Answer their questions. Follow their recommendations.
Our children will learn to do these things for themselves as long as we can guide, teach, or coach them in a way that they can intake and process what we are giving them. These experiences and the love you put into them will keep paying dividends into adulthood, helping them to regulate their emotions and/or reclaim control of their bodies during actual panic attacks if/when they occur.
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2018, May 4). Panic attacks and panic disorder. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/panic-attacks/symptoms-causes/syc-20376021
Panic attack. Seattle Children's Hospital. (2022, December 30). Retrieved February 3, 2023, from http://www.seattlechildrens.org/conditions/a-z/panic-attack/
St. Luke's University Health Network. (2020). Wellness 101 Show - How to Stop a Panic Attack. YouTube. Retrieved February 3, 2023, from https://youtu.be/JaEeQdGAnGo.