Dealing with Child Anxiety and Panic Attacks: The First Steps

Dealing with Child Anxiety and Panic Attacks:  The First Steps

Anxiety is not just an issue for adults.  It is easy to forget that children have a lot of worries and stressors. While adults can sometimes cope by looking at the bigger picture, children’s minds don’t work the same way. Children live more in the present. They get nervous and anxious for tests, athletic games, dance recitals, school performances and even social interactions.  While most of these anxious and nervous feelings are completely normal, sometimes anxiety crosses aline – which is different for each child — manifesting itself  into something more.

One way parents can recognize that a situation involves more than just typical nervous behavior is by the onset of panic attacks.  Panic attacks are very serious in nature and frequently panic attacks in children look very different from what a panic attack in an adult. Adding to the complexity of panic attack recognition is that panic attacks look visually different from child to child.  In some children a panic attack may start off simply looking like poor behavior or a tantrum. However, a panic attack tantrum becomes never ending, and the youth or child is not able to self-soothe.  These situations could potentially last for hours. Other children may not be able to catch their breath and/or feel like they are not able to breathe. In other cases, children will report symptoms that are similar to a heart attack. In addition, some children may exhibit sensory symptoms, including covering their ears or eyes, rocking back and forth, or pacing.  The complexity and variety of symptoms can be overwhelming, making it more difficult to distinguish between a behavioral issue and an actual panic attack symptom.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder and panic attack symptoms may come and go from day to day — or even throughout the course of the day. Typically, the symptoms are triggered by an event or circumstance.  Triggers can range be anything – often ranging from large crowds, loud noises, and/or being given challenging demands to deliver upon. The key is figuring out the triggers for your child. No two children are the same.

Once the triggers are identified, you can teach your child specific coping skills to use in these anxious moments. One of my favorite strategies is to make anxiety tool kit.  The tool kit helps your child use their coping skills and teaches them how to be proactive in preventing and managing their own anxiety.

Tool kit items can include:

  • Clay, putty, or slime
  • Notebook with list of tools, skills and practiced responses for peer interactions
  • Stress ball
  • Fidget spinner and squishy toys
  • Gum to keep mouth wet and keep airways open
  • Small water bottle to keep mouth wet
  • Paper bag to help breathing
  • Soothing pictures
  • Music player of soothing songs
  • Essential oils or calming scents

Although a tool kit will not stop all anxiety and panic attacks, just knowing it is there if it is needed is often helpful in relieving a child’s anxious feelings.  The tool kit empowers your child to do what is need to do to get though any difficult movements, setting themselves up for success.