HOW TO HELP YOUR CHILD WHEN THEY’RE HAVING A PANIC ATTACK

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?

Yes?

Okay.

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.

“Crying Child” by A.MASH is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

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.

“i’m gonna cry…” by sashomasho is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 


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.

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LoCKED OUT

It’s easier to be a good parent when you are not a parent at all. I think if I actually were a parent (to a human child and not a dog child) I would not be able to respond to the daily traumas as rationally as I can with someone else’s child.

A couple of weeks ago, I was out of town with a few families and their children. There were several houses on the property, and we were all in one of the houses together, when one of the children, a four-year-old wandered out. Not long after, someone else brought him back in and he was crying. He’d gotten lost, the grown-up person explained, and was wandering outside, scared. His mother felt terrible and held him. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry. That was a rare event. It won’t happen again,” she said to soothe him.

But, because I was that child, (and in some ways, still am that child) one afraid of not knowing what to do if I get lost, I over-identified with his experience and knew that what she was giving him was only half of what he needed. When she finally put him down, and we all went back to talking I felt unresolved on his behalf and knew that if no one closed the circle for him, he would not learn what to do when he got lost, and he would never feel safe enough to venture away from his mother.

He wanted to go back to the other house and play, so I asked his mom if I could take him. She said yes, and off we went. Outside I asked him to show me what happened when he got lost, and he walked me to the front door of the other house and reached his hand up to the knob, which was a good two feet too high for him.
“Oh!” I said. “The handle is too high for you. What should we do? What are some ideas for how to get in if we can’t reach the handle?”

He thought about it, but couldn’t come up with an answer. “What if you tried to knock on the door? Knock hard so even a person with hearing aids can hear you.” When he knocked, a bunch of voices called out “COME IN!” but he couldn’t reach the handle, so he couldn’t come in. He looked confused. “Let’s knock again until they answer the door,” I said. So he did that, and the door opened.

And presto, we were inside. We hung out for a bit and when we left to go back to the other house, I asked him to tell me what he would do the next time he got locked out of a house, and he told me. It felt so easy and obvious to me, but if I were his parent, I don’t think it would have felt so easy and obvious. I would probably have done exactly what his mother did and soothed him, felt terrible on his behalf and left it at that.

Reality was terrifying to me as a child. I often didn’t know what to do and got lost. I was soothed all the time, but no one ever took the time to teach me the tools and skills for participating in reality; to prepare me for what to do when things went wrong. Soothing me without teaching me what to do, taught me that I was right to be afraid, that the world was too hard for me and that kept me in a state of fear. I had to learn how to undo it all once I became an adult. I’m still learning. Teaching other people’s children to do what no one taught me to do is healing, and I hope that some of these blog posts can help some parents to realize that soothing their children is just one part of making their kids feel better. The other part is teaching them what to do when things go wrong. Because a lot of things go wrong.

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RAISE THE CHILD YOU HAVE & NOT THE CHILD YOU WANT.

So many people raise their children in opposition to how they were raised. They decide in advance what they will do differently, how their methods will ensure that what happened to them won’t happen to their own child. This is understandable on many levels, but it’s not practical, and more importantly, it’s not fair. You can’t base the parenting choices you make on the choices your parents made when they raised you. I mean, you can. Go for it, but you’ll simply be perpetuating the very cycle of parenting styles you are hoping to break. When you have a child, you don’t give birth to a mini-version of yourself. Certainly, your child might LOOK like a mini-you, but internally, they are their own person, and it’s that person that needs to be raised.

I don’t have children, but I have read more parenting books than most parents. And I’ve done this because I was a panicked-disordered little kid who needed to be raised differently than I was–but how? Parenting books have told me, and I’ve been able to understand what I needed versus what I got. Knowing this has taught me the reasons for some of my disabling fears, and in understanding what I got vs what I needed has been incredibly valuable for recognizing why I am the way I am, and how I can teach myself the things I never learned. It’s also taught me about the fundamental mistakes that parents make and the most fundamental mistake is this:

Parents so often raise the child they want, and not the child they have.

Little Panicker dancing

Here’s what that looks like. Your child is struggling in school. She’s getting bad grades. You ask her whether she can see the board, hear the teacher. She says yes, but just in case, you take her to the eye doctor, and to an audiologist. When everything comes back all clear, you take her for an educational assessment. You’re told she has a learning disability, and so you meet with her teachers to inform them, sit with her while she does her homework, get her a tutor, ask if she can work one-on-one with the teacher after class. These feel like the right things to do, but each one of these efforts has one thing in common–YOU. You are worried. You don’t want your kid to do poorly. You want your kid to succeed and you want to set her up for that success, and so you do all the things a parent is supposed to do to guarantee your child has what you didn’t. In your search for the answer, you are not only ignoring your child who actually HAS the answers for what is going on with her you’re also sending her the message that there is a way to be, and she’s not being it. You are working hard so that your kid matches the kid you expect her to be and not the kid she is.

But she has a learning disability, you’re saying! Okay, sure. She learns differently from you. But guess what? You learn differently from her. So, do you have a learning disability? There isn’t one way to learn. We are not all the same. The way you learn might work better for the type of educational system that we’ve instituted for all our children, but just because it’s not right for her, doesn’t mean she’s the one who’s wrong. We spend so much of our time trying to bend our child to fit the world, and never work to bend the world to fit our children.

When I was little, my best friend was deaf. She could read lips, and she didn’t sign. It was up to HER to keep up with us. But what if we had all learned how to sign? What if we had helped prepare her to be part of the deaf world as well as the hearing world? We would have learned a new language, she would have felt included and she wouldn’t have had to bear the brunt of learning at the same rate as the hearing kids.

Our children shouldn’t have to prove themselves to us. We should be proving ourselves to our kids. I know people who are constantly pushing their kids to prove to adults how well they can read, or how well they can dance. And when the kid doesn’t measure up while “proving” how well she reads, the parent apologizes on her behalf, assuring the audience of adults that she in fact “can read very well for her age, she’s just being shy.” These demands and apologies send the message to your child that the things about her that are valuable are the things YOU think are valuable. What does she value? What does she feel? Why not celebrate those things?

“Children of Langa” byznagelphotography is licensed underCC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Our children have so much to teach us, but when we’re so focused on getting them to fit into the world as we know it, we’re actually overlooking the essence of what makes our kids so interesting and individual. Let’s spend more time allowing our kids to show us who they are, and a bit less time telling them how we want them to be.

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