Ask An Expert: Carla Weinstein on helping an anxious child
with Carla Weinstein, Founder of The Drop In Project
My 11 year-old son had a full blown panic attack at school recently. He's been going through a lot with struggles at school, both academically, but also socially. He's trying to figure out his role within his friend group and it's not always been easy. Oh, and of course, there's the pandemic! How can I help him manage his anxiety in simple, day-to-day ways?
An anxious Mom
Thank you for sharing! This happens more than you’d think, and it’s not always easy to talk about. The good news is that panic attacks are treatable, and mindfulness is a particularly beneficial modality for learning how to manage the stress and anxiety that tend to induce them.
A boy at age eleven is on the cusp of his teen years. He may be starting puberty or aware of changes in his body. It’s an age where the sense of independence grows, where self-consciousness may be heightened and where peer groups and group membership are of growing import. When you take the insecurity and unease that can arise when social dynamics shift, add the stress of increased academic demands, throw in the uncertainty and restrictions of living/schooling in a pandemic, and combine it with an eleven-year-old’s growing self-awareness, it’s easy to see how this witch’s brew may culminate in a panic attack.
As parents, it’s heart breaking when our children are suffering, but pay attention to the urge to “fix” and instead see if you’re able to mindfully guide and support in the following ways:
NORMALIZE: Panic attacks are a very human, biological reaction to everyday stressors. When we are overwhelmed by stress or anxiety - such as fear and self-doubt very common at this age! - our bodies perceive threat and an alarm sounds that sets off a chain of physiological reactions. Remind him: This is what our bodies are designed to do.
EDUCATE: We are not trying to eliminate, but to regulate our mental and emotional strain. Anxiety and stress can be healthy aspects of our lives that provide good information, and contribute to our adaptation, resilience and performance. Explain that our goal is to learn to manage them effectively.
PAY ATTENTION: Ask your son to recall any signals that his body’s alarm was going off, such as sore stomach, mind racing, heart beating fast, palms sweaty. When we can recognize the “fight, flight or freeze” symptoms, we can heed them as warning. If recalling the panic attack is stressful, you can test the feeling by talking broadly about things he finds scary – darkness, spiders, being alone, scary movies, etc.
GET PRESENT/DE-ESCALATE: We combat the body’s physiological reaction to stress by grounding ourselves in the present moment. There are countless mindfulness practices for learning to get present, but the one most often used is belly breathing. We use the breath - extending our exhale if we can - to shut off the body’s alarm. Practice a calming breath with him to place yourselves in the here and now.
SELF SOOTHE: After the fact, it’s important to consider self-soothing techniques that work already, so that he can recall and use them when he recognizes symptoms or feels his stress rising. Make a list of what those are: listening to music, reading, thinking about something specific, fidgeting, exercise/sports, playing an instrument, singing, talking to someone he trusts, using positive self-talk; practicing breathing exercises and meditation. There are lots of good apps for this!
ENGAGE COGNITION: Panic attacks are very real manifestations of intense fear that can feel frightening. Once you’ve experienced one panic attack, the fright of having another might be worse than what is feared in the first place. When your son becomes adept at identifying signals, remind him of his new approach, where he tells himself: “This is normal – I can pay attention, get present and self soothe.” Furthermore, an important antidote to fear is curiosity! Help him to get curious about the triggering situation. Without pushing, see if you can help him to wonder about what is concerning him; encourage him to make time to think, talk, write or paint about the things that worry him.
EXPLORE: As parents, we have a huge job in continuing to ensure the basics - good nutrition, sleep and regular exercise, but remember too that we are modelling the behaviour we hope to see. Take time yourself to explore these steps and ensure you’re present and soothed, that you know where your concerns lie and are curious in your approach. If the panic attacks recur with any frequency or increase in severity, or you notice your son becoming avoidant or distressed, it’s a good idea to bolster a mindful, supportive environment with professional help.