What to do if your child has a panic attack

Children's Health

by Taha Ansari, MD

Oct 26, 2021

If your child has ever experienced a panic attack, both you and they will want to know exactly what caused it and how to prevent such a scary episode in the future. Here are eight things you can do to help if your child has a panic attack.

1. Understand what causes panic attacks in kids.

Panic attacks in kids are episodes of overwhelming anxiety and dread that are accompanied by physical symptoms like racing heart, chest tightness or pain, breathing difficulties and sometimes dizziness, sweating or nausea. Children often report they feel like they’re dying during a panic attack.

Obviously, as a parent or guardian, you’ll want to find the cause of these attacks and eliminate those triggers so you can prevent your child from experiencing a panic attack again.

But the causes are complicated. Panic attacks are the result of panic disorder, a subcategory of anxiety. Anxiety often develops when kids have:

  • A genetic predisposition toward mental health problems.
  • Other psychiatric conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), eating disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
  • A history of depression, anxiety and/or panic disorder.
  • A failure to bond with caregivers or family members in early infancy and toddlerhood.

As you can see, these things are not within your control as a caregiver.

Thankfully, though, there are a number of ways you can lessen the likelihood, intensity, duration and frequency of panic attacks. You’ve already taken the first step: simply learning what your youngster is experiencing helps enormously. Your support can be the top factor that encourages them toward lasting mental health.

2. Provide a structured daily and weekly routine.

While mental health issues have increased overall in the last year, I’ve also witnessed a strange phenomenon: many kids who had anxiety before the pandemic are less triggered these days, because they are facing fewer social situations. But the opposite is also happening: many of the kids who were mentally healthy before are now suffering more with depression and anxiety because they used to thrive on those social interactions with others.

As you can see, your kids’ daily, weekly and monthly rhythms play a big role in how they manage their mental health. That’s because when kids know what to expect each week, they can prepare themselves mentally and emotionally. That means getting excited for something or bracing themselves to tackle challenges instead of being thrown off balance every time a new event comes up.

3. Limit low passive screen time.

Know the difference between active and passive screen time. Here’s how experts at the Queensland University of Technology define the two terms.

  • Active Screen Time involves cognitively or physically engaging in screen-based activities, such as playing video games or completing homework on a computer.
  • Passive Screen Time involves sedentary screen-based activities and/or passively receiving screen-based information, such as watching TV.

Because mindless scrolling and streaming has shown to have a negative impact on kids’ mental health, experts encourage parents to instead limit the use of devices to creative, safe, productive expressive outlets.

4. Reduce negative news media consumption.

Real-time stories about violence, corruption and the pandemic can be upsetting, especially to young people. You don’t need to eliminate the headlines completely, but try to consume the news together with your child. This way, you can have a productive conversation about what you’re both hearing.

Your perspective is more powerful than you think. Your child knows that you have more experience than they do and can appreciate the moderate take you bring. You can also introduce the nuanced “other sides” to every news story so that kids and teens can learn to think critically about what they hear in the future. This tool will foster curiosity, which helps them think for themselves, a skill that translates to many other areas of life.

5. Encourage more time spent in nature.

Recently, experts from the Department of Psychology at Harvard University and the Department of Psychology at the University of Washington collaborated to uncover ways to help youth cope with the new stressors of the past couple years. They found that access to nature and the outdoors had a positive effect on kids’ mental well-being during this time.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Biking
  • Hiking
  • Camping
  • Stargazing
  • Going on a picnic
  • Kayaking

If your child or teen isn’t used to time in nature, ease into it by joining them on the back patio for homework time each night, walking the neighborhood after supper, or hosting a (local fire marshal-approved) bonfire for their friends on the weekends.

6. Ensure the right amount—and quality—of sleep.

Recently, the CDC reported that 60% of middle schoolers and 70% of high schoolers get inadequate sleep, which contributes to mental health and behavioral problems.

Improve your kids’ sleep starting today by implementing (and sticking to) a nighttime routine.

  • Limit or completely cut off caffeinated drinks and sugary snacks after supper.
  • Let kids choose their favorite relaxing music to begin winding down a half-hour before lights-out.
  • Spend $5 on an old-fashioned alarm clock so that kids can power down their devices after supper and cut their exposure to both blue light and mentally stimulating content.
  • Have your youngster go to bed and wake up at the same time each night.
  • Ensure them of their safety, both physically and emotionally.
  • Invest in blackout curtains and turn off night-lights.

Again, no one is claiming that these steps will eliminate panic attacks. But sleep hygiene is a powerful tool when used as part of a holistic approach to your kids’ mental wellness.

7. Talk to your doctor.

Not sure how to tell if your child needs professional help? The good news is, you don’t need to know. That’s what experts—like my team—are there for. Yes, you may be the closest person to your child, but your child’s doctor has a perspective (plus tools and resources) that can help figure out next steps.

So, you don’t need to wonder whether what you’re seeing needs treatment. Any child who experiences a panic attack deserves to be seen by an expert who can piece together the whole picture and offer options toward recovery.

8. Relax.

Research shows that the above tactics work. But there’s one more important thing caregivers should know—your mental health matters, too.

To truly help your young loved one, you must first control your own anxiety. Over a quarter of parents say their own mental health has deteriorated since the pandemic began. And 14% of parents say their kids’ behavioral health has worsened.

But remember, you are not alone in your effort to raise a healthy family. Find a doctor near you today to get started on the path to wellness.

About the Author

Taha Ansari, MD, is a child and adolescent psychiatrist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White McLane Children's Specialty Clinic – Temple.

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