Helping Your Child With A Panic Attack

It’s all over the news this week about some young children experiencing panic attacks recently, perhaps due to the pandemic, school closures, worry over illness and restrictions.

From my experience, supporting families over the last year and a half, during the lockdowns and school closures, families have relayed that they believe their children’s panic attacks have been due to worry over the virus’ effect on both their family’s health and also their livelihoods. With examples including children being concerned in particular, about catching COVID at school when they reopened, and passing it onto vulnerable family members. 

What are panic attacks?

Panic attacks can be extremely upsetting and scary for children. They can include feeling faint and dizzy, sweating, feeling sick, feeling their heart beating fast, feeling short of breath, shaky, a tingling sensation and feeling a horrible sense of dread. Understandably, children feel very frightened when having panic attacks. From my experience, they usually last up to 20 minutes, but they can last for even longer. 

What can parents do to help?

It’s really important to speak to a medical professional, such as a GP, if your child is experiencing panic attacks. They may also need to rule out any other medical conditions, so it’s important to get medical advice.

Different strategies will help for different children and parents often become the experts of how to help their children with panic attacks over time. But parents experiencing their children having one for the first time could try some of the following to help their child if they are feeling a panic attack coming on (please note it can be very tricky for children to know if one is about to happen). 

Please be aware that this does not replace medical advice, I am not medically trained and parents should speak to a medical professional for advice.

  • Comfort them and try your best to remain calm, no matter how worried you are yourself. You staying calm will be hugely beneficial for them.
  • Encourage them to take deep, slow breaths and be positive, offering praise when they manage it. You could do this together, counting with them as you both breathe in and out. The number you count to will depend on the age of your child. You could start with counting to 5 and then adapting if that’s too long. You could say ‘lets try taking a big breath together and count to 5 as we breathe in, 1..2..3..4..5, fantastic, and then 5 out 1…2…3..4..5 well done’ Sometimes it might help to count to more when breathing out than in.
  • Give them a hug and reassure them that the horrible feelings they are experiencing will go away and that they are safe and will be ok. Try saying ‘You are safe, these feelings will go, you are ok’ Keep it simple, don’t overcomplicate what you are saying. Be calm, reassuring and get the message across that everything will be ok. 
  • Stay with them and get down to their level.
  • Try talking about their senses with them. What they can feel, see, hear, taste and smell for example. Thinking about their senses can help to regulate their emotions and help them focus on the now. You could ask them ‘What can you feel when your sat down right now? I can feel the solid floor against my hands, it’s hard and smooth- can you feel that too?’ ‘I can smell the dinner cooking in the oven, what can you smell?’ etc. 

I’m going to add to this post with useful books and resources to support families and their children who are experiencing Panic Attacks. If you know of any good ones, please do get in touch and let me know about them.

In the meantime, have a read of our post about the best resources for children for understanding emotions here

If you’re looking for sensory activities, there’s a whole chapter of them in my book ‘100 Ways Your Child Can Learn Through Playhere

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