Watching a child that you care about suffer from a panic attack can be a highly distressing and upsetting experience. Panic attacks are essentially caused by the same processes as the ‘fight or flight’ response but the symptoms are generally much more pronounced. This can be unpleasant and frightening for a young child and as a parent you will want to do anything you can to help. Read on and we’ll look in more depth at panic attacks in children, what to expect and how to help them to cope.
Symptoms of Panic Attacks in Children
As mentioned, panic attacks in children are caused by the same mechanisms as the fight or flight response is normally. This means that they are caused by the release of catecholamine neurotransmitters – adrenaline and noradrenaline. These neurotransmitters are normally released in response to a potential threat and serve the purpose of preparing the body for action (literally ‘fight’ or ‘flight’). In panic attacks however, the response is exaggerated and normally out of context, causing the sufferer to experience an elevated heart rate, anxious thoughts, muscle contractions, sweating, nausea, dizziness, hyperventilation and even dizziness.
So what do panic attacks in children look like? Often they will involve your child pacing, crying, sweating, shaking and generally acting frightened. The most notable physiological symptom though will be the heart rate which you will quickly be able to check with a finger.
Your child might also complain of chest pain. Ask them if they are experiencing any pain or numbness in their arm or chest – if so, you may want to have them seen by a doctor. It’s actually highly unlikely that it should be a heart attack however as they are extremely uncommon in young children. Likewise, the hyperventilation and other signs of stress should all point to panic attack.
What You Should Do
When dealing with panic attacks, the single most important thing is to remain calm. Children will look up to their parents in order to know how to react and if you seem to be panicking then this will only make them more stressed and potentially exacerbate their symptoms.
Instead, your job is to try and reassure your child that everything is alright and to try and get them to act normal. If they are in danger of fainting, then you can try getting them to breathe into a bag in order to fix their CO2 levels. You should also get them to sit down to avoid them potentially falling and injuring themselves.
Otherwise, talk to them normally and try distracting them with games and other activities. By acting normal and almost ‘ignoring’ the problem, you can avoid them getting more scared at the symptoms and teach them that they will pass and subside with time.
Avoid giving your child caffeine as this can heighten their heart rate even more and comfort them if they seem very distressed. Speak confidently and let them know that you’re there to help.
What Causes Panic Attacks in Children?
A panic attack may well be a sign of a larger problem or more general stress for your child. As a parent, it’s your job to try and uncover what is causing them distress and to try and help them to get back to normal. Panic attacks will often be the result of night terrors and nightmares. These too can be a result of ongoing stress in a child’s life.
Ask your child if everything is alright at school and if they are happy. If you are having family problems at home (such as relationship problems) then try to think how this might be affecting your child and do what you can to protect them from these. Try to make sure that your child feels as though they have a warm and safe home to come back to where they will receive unconditional love.
Panic attacks can also sometimes be the result of phobias such as agoraphobia. In this case, therapy such as CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) is the most effective treatment. CBT can also be highly effective in treating panic attacks generally and in giving your child the coping skills they need to prevent them from occurring in future.