Ask The Experts
Q: What is a panic attack and how can I help my teen if they are experiencing them?
A: Panic attacks in children and adolescents are on the rise. If your child is experiencing panic attacks, this can be scary for you and your child. Here are some information and suggestions to help.
A person having a panic attack perceives some sort of danger. In response, their body releases adrenaline and hormones which can cause heart palpitations, sweating and shortness of breath. Focusing on these symptoms increases them. The heart races; breathing becomes very difficult. Interpreting the sensations as a heart attack or even dying, panic sets in.
Panic attacks typically last a few seconds to 10 minutes, but the impact can last much longer. The attacks are frightening, very uncomfortable physically and if witnessed, could be embarrassing. Your child may avoid places and situations they fear will trigger another attack, which can lead to school absences, fewer interactions with friends and disengagement from extracurriculars.
If your child or teen experiences panic attacks, you can help by offering validation and relaxation techniques. During an attack, rather than saying, “You’ll be fine,” encourage your child to reassure themselves by naming what is happening: “I’m having a panic attack.” Repeat calming statements along with them, “I will be better soon, this will pass.” Offering an ice pack for the back of the neck or the chest and a paper bag to breathe into can be beneficial. Afterward, help your child identify the physical sensations they experienced. Take a few minutes to do some deep breathing every morning or visualize a safe, calm place before bed each night. These techniques can decrease overall anxiety and give your child tools to use when they feel an attack coming on.
Your help and support are important, but seek professional advice if the attacks occur regularly. A mental health therapist can work with your child to identify the triggers that lead to an attack and strategies to cope. As you help your child, be kind to yourself; relaxation techniques benefit parents too.
Kaitlin Arnold, LPC, is the founder and therapist at Finding Your Balance Therapy. She helps individuals and families dealing with depression, anxiety, other mental health issues and stressors from life challenges to develop positive coping skills, navigate and gain confidence in dealing with stressful situations and improve their relationships.
The Family Center provides free programs and resources that empower families to successfully navigate life’s social, emotional and physical challenges. Learn more at familycenterweb.org.
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