When your child is having a panic attack, do you know how to help them? Do you tell them that they’re okay? That they’re fine? Do you tell them to breathe?
Please stop doing that.
When your kid (or your sibling or friend or loved one) is having a panic attack, they are not fine and they are not okay. They know this. You know this. So, when you tell them that they ARE fine, when they are very clearly not, the person having the panic attack knows you are not someone they can rely upon. You are not being in charge of reality, which is what the anxious person needs. Having a panic attack is losing control–a terrifying place for an anxious person to be. If they are going to be soothed by you, you need to prove to your anxious loved one that you are capable of being the one in control, and in order to do that, you need to tell the truth.
Anxiety gets worse when it’s denied or hidden. Telling someone they are okay when they are not, makes their anxiety worse. Acknowledging that someone is not okay does not in fact trigger their anxiety, rather it allows the anxious person to relax a little knowing that someone is completely there with them. A person having a panic attack is afraid of what’s happening to them, and when the person they are with is calm and stable, able to recognize the situation for what it is, the anxious person can begin to feel safer.
So, are you supposed to tell the panicking person they are NOT okay?
Sort of, and no. A good approach is to acknowledge what’s happening, and that you’re there and will get through it with them. Ex: “I know you don’t feel okay right now, but I’m here with you and we’ll get through this together.” Remind them of the last time this happened, point out that they were scared then that they would never stop panicking, but that they did, and they will again.
Be conscious of mirroring back to your child whatever it is they’re afraid they’re doing or not doing. If they feel they are unable to breathe, tell them you are watching their chest and belly rise and fall, that even though they feel their body is shutting down, the person not panicking is watching and able to see that their body is not shutting down. “Yes, I know it feels like your body is closing down, this is what panic attacks do, remember? I am your emergency contact and I’m here with you, and I can tell you that you are going to be okay.”
Try and point out that feelings are not facts. Yes, your child might be CONVINCED that you’ll forget they exist after they’ve left for their school trip, but that’s just a feeling, some bad information their anxious brain is sending them, but it’s not a fact. The FACT is that you have never forgotten your child in the past, the FACT is that your child has never forgotten they have a parent, so it makes logical sense that no parent could forget they had a child. Separate their worries from reality with logical, evidenced-based facts.
Sit with them. Do not be busy doing other things while your child is panicking. Hold the anxiety with them. If they are hyperventilating, it is appropriate to have them breathe, but breathe alongside them. Show them how you would like them to be breathing (slowly in for a count of six, slowly out for a count of six. Keep doing this a few times). If they are not hyperventilating, having them breathe might actually induce hyperventilation, so do not tell them to breathe unless it’s necessary.
When they breathe, tell them to imagine they are inhaling blue, safe, clear and clean air and exhaling hot red, polluted mad air.
Remind them that panic attacks are false alarms. That their alarm has gone off when it didn’t need to, and now you just have to sit and be patient until the alarm begins to quiet. Their alarm is more sensitive than others so things that other people wouldn’t think are dangerous, threatening, or scary are all of these things to a sensitively-alarmed human.
Whatever you do, do not deny their experience. Do not diminish what is happening for them. Don’t tell them they are being ridiculous or over-dramatic. When you panic from actual danger, imagine if everyone dismissed your fear, telling you that you were being ridiculous and over-dramatic. Just because you don’t have the same fears as your child, doesn’t make them less traumatic for them to live through. Anxiety attacks happen when we mistake a non-threatening thing for a threatening thing. There are ways to acknowledge that the thing itself isn’t dangerous, that feeling afraid won’t kill you, while also communicating that you understand the fear is very real to them. Be your child’s life coach, their mental health advocate, their best friend. Treat them the way you want them to treat themselves. They are learning all of their behavior from you. Be their role model. It’s what they’ve always wanted from you.
You got this.