Getting Close Is The Key To Parenting Teens With Panic Attacks
Working with both teens and parents of teens as an NYC therapist, I often see parents feel lost when their teen suffers from panic attacks. Not only are parents unsure of how to deal with panic attacks, but they can also struggle with understanding what causes them–a build-up of overwhelming anxiety. Panic attacks are a physical indication that something is not okay emotionally.
For parents, the key to parenting a teen with panic attacks is, simply put, getting close to them and their experiences. It’s important to acknowledge how awful panic attacks can be, as well as offer your teen the opportunity to have someone with them while they’re having one. This way, your teen is not isolated and can work through both the physical experience and eventually, what is causing their anxiety.
Identifying Your Teen’s Panic Attack
Many parents have trouble recognizing a panic attack, not knowing the different physical forms anxiety can take. Your teen’s heart might be racing. They could be having trouble breathing, speaking or even, thinking. He or she might be feeling sleepless, dizzy or unfocused. They’re feeling an intense fear, claustrophobia like the walls are closing in or the urge to fly out of somewhere. Your kid might abruptly leave the room, rock back and forth or they may be unable to move. They may also struggle to put sentences together.
For parents, this is scary and their first thought often is that their teen is suffering a medical emergency. In my therapy practice, sometimes I see parents who are preoccupied and might also misunderstand the symptoms of a panic attack as some form of defiance or dramatization. But, if it keeps happening, it’s time for parents to get curious and be willing to name your teen’s experience as a panic attack.
Panic Attacks Aren’t Just A Phase: They’re Emotional
Often parents and other adults can dismiss teens’ experiences and while panic attacks can be short-term, they’re not just a phase like puberty. Panic attacks are, in fact, active emotions that need attention.
In my anxiety therapy practice, panic attacks usually occur when teens have a build-up of pressure and anxiety that eventually is let out in the form of panic. Adolescence is a stressful time between school, family and social life and even, potential struggles with gender, sexuality and identity. In NYC, the average high school student is taking on as much if not more than the average college kid. There’s pressure to do it all in high school including SATs, sports, arts, after-school jobs and not to mention, getting into a good college. I once saw a teen in my practice who was trying to keep grades up at a very competitive high school (without the help of peers or a tutor) and participating in similarly highly competitive dance classes and debate. As the pressure mounted, they felt more and more anxious and started having panic attacks.
Even though panic attacks can be event specific, they likely won’t just go away when the SATs are over, for example. The next thing will come around that makes teens feel the same way. Just because stressors go away doesn’t mean the panic does unless it gets the help and attention it needs.
When Your Teen Is Having A Panic Attack, First Help Them Slow Down And Breathe
When your teen is having a panic attack, the first impulse might be to try to tell them to stop it or say that there is nothing to worry about. But when they’re panicking, they can’t calm themselves down. It’s important for parents to realize their child is in pain–they can’t breathe and their body has sped up too much.
Instead, similar to when they were a younger child, it’s your job, as the parent, to lead and slow both yourself and your kid down. I often tell parents it helps if you talk to him or her in a comforting voice–not fake, but in a way that let’s them know it’s okay. Encourage them to slow down and breathe, counting in four and out four. Offer to sit closer, letting them know you’re there. Tell them it’s okay to nod yes or no rather than speak. Let your teen calm down and then, move. If it takes a long time and they are late for school, let them be late and know this is not forever.
Normalize The Experience Of Panic Attacks
Emotions need confirmation, especially for teens. Teens are thrown into the adult world so everything, including emotional experiences, is still so new to them. They need to know that what they’re experiencing during a panic attack is their bodies responding to emotion. They are physically okay and can recover, but their emotions need attention. If you identify what is going on and give it (and your teen) attention, parents can help teens identify panic attacks when they’re on their own.
For example, if your kid is rocking back and forth and can’t articulate what they are upset about, see if they will let you sit near or next to them. Don’t say, “Oh, you’ll get over it” or “You know, once you take the SAT, you’ll feel better.” Instead say, “Yes, this is overwhelming. You’re having a panic attack. Let’s just take our time to sit and breathe.”
Don’t Put Added Pressure On A Teen Dealing With Panic Attacks
Sometimes it’s easy to list all the things teens need to do whether in academic activities, extra learning, clubs, drama, dance, music, sports and relationships. But when your kid is suffering panic attacks, clear the decks. Drop the activity, write a note or call the school.
For example, while college entrance is important, you can still take the pressure off academics for a few hours, days or even, a week to help calm your teen down. Think of panic attacks like a fever–you wouldn’t ask your kid to perform if they had the flu. This will give space for the pain and anxiety in a way that will stop it from continuing to fester.
Let Your Teen Know They Can Talk To You
It’s essential to remind your teen that even though you might seem busy, they can talk to you. Let them know, “It’s okay to interrupt me and say, ‘I need you,’ just like you did when you were younger.” It sometimes helps to set aside a time when your kid can say whatever they need to while you listen and not react. Set up a consistent time to talk whether dinner, a walk home or to school, or evenings after work. Say, “I’ll just be here–you are the one talking. I want to hear everything even if it’s about something I did wrong.”
Then, listen. If your teen doesn’t want to talk, that’s okay too. Just make sure they know that anytime they want to, they can. Don’t press it in a way that makes them clam up or feel bad. It’s important to just consistently offer.
Get Extra Help For Teens With Panic Attacks
A teen’s experience with panic attacks is sometimes just too much for a parent–or even both parents–to deal with alone. It can be hard to sort out how to help or maybe your teen needs more than you know how to give. Sometimes a parent’s emotional stuff/panic can also be triggered in this process. It’s time, then, to ask for help whether from a friend, sibling, extended family or a therapist.
It often takes a village to care for panic attacks. Friends, siblings or extended family might have also had panic attacks and can voice their insight about what teens might need if they’ve also felt this way, normalizing the process. Friends and siblings can also sometimes let the air out so teens can express their feelings in a familiar way. Extended family might also have extra time to be with the teen during this period. And as a therapist, I provide teens with time to find what is behind the panic, give voice to the emotions that are getting bottled-up and need attention, and help them think about strategies to be calm and adjust their behavior.
As a whole, teens do better in community. A therapist, friends, family, teachers and schools are the community that will help support them in, through, and after the panic attack subsides. Building relationships around and with the teen helps them through the panic.