How to Calm Your Teenager Who's Experiencing a Panic Attack
She’s trembling, she can’t breathe and she’s hyperventilating — seemingly all at the same time. She panics, you panic — welcome to the world of panic attacks. They can come on suddenly and without warning to people who struggle with anxiety. Although stress and anxiety can exacerbate the likelihood of having a panic attack, panic attacks can happen at any time – even during sleep. And they can be super scary — for both the person having it and the one witnessing it. When it’s your child who experiencing a panic attack, it’s easy to be scared and to feel powerless. But we aren’t, and they aren’t either.
It’s important to accept what she’s feeling as real. The dizziness, chest pain, racing heart — all of it is real. It can feel to her as if she is dying because her body is basically having a physiological false alarm. Don’t tell her to ignore it and that she’s fine, because she definitely isn’t feeling anywhere near “fine.” Start by telling her that it is just a false alarm, that it’s a panic attack and she will get through it and you’re going to help her. If she’s had them before, remind her it gets better and she will be OK.
Here are a few things that work for my daughter:
Over the Phone:
First of all, if I’m on the other end of a panicked phone call, I always tell her to find a quiet place if she’s not in one already. Then I start with a couple of really big, slow breaths until she can hear me above all the noise in her head. After that, I conjure up my most calm and soothing “meditation” voice. You know, the one that sounds like it’s melting? I tell her I’ve got her, she’s having a panic attack and she will get through it just like other ones she’s had. I do this because in the midst of an attack, all positivity usually goes out the window and reminding her she can take control and it will pass soon helps get her head in a better place.
Then I walk her through some slow breathing. I tell her to breathe and to find the touch points of where is she, what can she see, hear, smell or feel. You can’t do much more than talk someone through it if it’s via the phone. So take a breath yourself and settle in for a few minutes because it may take a little while until you can calm her down enough to get to the root of the issue. Trust me, I know how hard it is not to just suck her anxiety, fear and panic into yourself and your own tone, but if you aren’t the uber calm mom, you often just wind her up more. So take a big, conscious step back emotionally if you can.
If you can’t, pass the phone to someone who can. Seriously.
Since Kylie is a teenager and has been through these, often that’s all it takes to get her settled enough to go on with her day. When she was younger it took us both longer to cope, and there were times I would have to go pick her up. When you’re physically together, calming her down is a bit easier and a bit quicker, depending on the severity of the issue of course.
This is what I do: I meet her where she is. So if that’s lying on the floor of the bathroom, I lie down next to her. I tell her softly that it’s OK, whatever it is, I’ve got her. I put my arms around her or if I can’t do that, I hold her hand or touch her back — whatever I can physically do to touch her, to ground her again. I tell her to look at me so she has something calm to focus on, to bring her back to the moment and space where she is. I just hold on, tell her to breathe with me, to match the rhythm of my breath.
When you slow your breath to match someone else’s, it can help reset your nervous system. When we are hugging or close enough I tell her to feel my heartbeat, to concentrate on that. Sometimes I just hug her until I can feel her give in, to relax into me. Lean into a hug like that and she’ll let go, she will unclench her straining, tense shoulders and feel them slide back down away from her ears. Simply put, her body and breath will attune to yours. Like magic.
Again, make sure you can be that source of calm. I remember one time in Yosemite when Kylie became upset. She started crying, something had bitten her, a lump was forming and she was in pain. I probably reacted by saying she’d be fine — which didn’t help her at all. So then as the pain and the lump grew, so did a panic attack. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t catch her breath. So what did I do? I took on her anxiety and started ratcheting up the chaos. I was nowhere near the calm, meditation-voiced mom I needed to be. In fact, I had to step away and ask my sister to take over. Perhaps not my best parenting moment, but it was the right decision given my immediate and total lack of serenity. I simply wasn’t the person to help her right then.
Luckily my sister found her soothing, meditation voice and we all lived to tell the tale.
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