Panic Attacks: How Parents Can Help
WHAT’S THE ISSUE: ‘I want to work on myself’, a parent recently told me after asking for advice on how she can help her child who is experiencing panic attacks. ‘I feel that it’s me that needs to change’. In this article, I share a 3-step process for parents who are ready to change their role in their parent-child relationship. Step 1 involves reflecting on what it means to shift into a Parent as Supporter role, which might more effectively help your child to overcome the panic attacks.
PANIC ATTACKS: HOW PARENTS CAN HELP [STEP 1]
“It’s important to shift your role from Rescuer to Supporter. You don’t climb down a pit with someone. You give them a ladder, a rope. Because you can’t help them if you’re both in the pit.”
Marléne Rose Shaw
Many parents who ask the ‘How can I help my child during a panic attack?’ question fall into the Hero/Rescuer/ Martyr role that perpetuates what Karpman calls a ‘Drama Triangle’ in relationships.
The Rescuer intentions are to help. But the impact on a child who is feeling overwhelmed by panic is disempowering. It can also make them feel worse; the Rescuer role is a fear-based reaction to the problem. In the Rescuer role, you can find yourself struggling to avoid climbing into the fear-based ‘Panic Pit’ with your child. Kids are experts at feeling people’s energy. Even if you try to hide your fear, they will feel. A kid who has suffered a panic attack needs you to support them in empowering themselves, not to fake being calm and add to their fear.
We are also unable to help a child during a panic attack if we go into Persecutor. Blaming. Shaming. Criticizing external factors (like the education system). Getting angry at the child for “attention-seeking”. Being highly judgmental (e.g. “There’s no reason to panic over such things. You shouldn’t feel this way. I want you to be strong”). The Persecutor role can also have the intention of wanting to help, but the impact can be anything but helpful.
Similarly, if we are stuck in a Victim role, feeling powerless and helpless in response to a child who is experiencing panic attacks, we are again getting caught up in a Drama Triangle that doesn’t help a child who is in a state of emotional distress.
What does help is when we make a conscious decisions to step out of the Drama Triangle.
I was delighted when a parent followed up the ‘How can I help my child who is experiencing panic attacks’ question with a ‘I want to work on myself, because I feel that I need to change in order to help my child.’ I believe that being willing to work on ourselves in support of another is one the greatest acts of love.
When our stress response kicks in, we can all fall into relationship patterns that don’t serve us, the other person, or the relationship, such as the role of the ‘Rescuer’. And as therapist Marléne Rose Shaw puts it: “A Rescuer really wants to help but confuses rescuing people with supporting them…consider the difference between rescue (rushing in to protect another) and support (encouraging the person to help themselves and supporting them in that).”
Whatever your role in the Drama Triangle that you notice yourself falling into, Marléne’s advice for how parents can step out of the Drama Triangle by shifting into Parent as Supporter role is to ask their child supportive questions like:
- ‘I wonder what might help you to feel better?’ (This is a ‘thinking aloud’ kind of question where you model and emanate a sense of ‘wonder’, which has a more calming effect on a child than emanating worry energy).
- ‘What sort of things make you calm?’
- ‘Can you think of something that worked for you, when you felt panicky, and then you felt better afterwards?’
- ‘What doesn’t work for you?’
What these types of questions do is they disrupt whatever role we find ourselves adopting in the Drama Triangle. Instead, parents support the child to engage in a problem-solving thought pattern, where parent and child are working together to help solve the problem.
It’s important to be pro-active, and ask these questions when your child is calm. Avoid delaying having this conversation until your child is suffering from another panic attack, as they will be too far into their ’emotional brain’ for it to be a constructive conversation.
If you want something different, you need to do something different. But before you do something different, you need to evaluate what you’ve tried that has actually worked (to do more of that), and what you’ve tried that hasn’t worked (so you stop doing that). You are then in a better position to understand what a child needs from you as their parent, moving forward.
PANIC ATTACKS: HOW PARENTS CAN HELP [STEP 2]
“I’m both an educator and a mother. I have a 5 and a 7 year old, and the bottom line answer that has been for me, very true to healing my daughter’s anxiety was to work on myself. And to work on my childhood wounds. And heal myself. Because what I understood was that my daughter, who at the time was about to turn 3, was mirroring my internal state.”
Panic attacks are an intense form of anxiety. As an EFT Therapist specialized in stress, anxiety and academic achievement, my role isn’t so ‘rescue’ anyone who is suffering from school-related panic attacks. I’m not here to save anyone. That would be doing them a disservice; it would be robbing them of the opportunity to empower themselves by saving themselves. When, as adults, we go into a Rescuer role in response to a child who is experiencing panic attacks, it is doesn’t empower the child to learn the self-soothing skills that can help them take back control of their life. Empowering themselves to overcome their excess stress, anxiety, or panic requires learning new body awareness and emotional self-soothing skills, which they are fully capable of doing, with effective support. But for support to be effective, it’s not just what we say or do to help, it’s also how we are being. The quality of our presence is also key in helping a child co-regulate down to a calmer place, when they are experiencing the dysregulation of a panic attack.
Before you can help a child through co-regulation, which is just a fancy way of saying ‘helping someone calm down because our calm energy is stronger than their panic/stress energy’, you need to protect time in your daily life for you to do your own emotional healing work and experience more inner peace. Most of this emotional work happens behind the scenes – well before a child comes to you feeling panicky.
It about being pro-active and taking response-ability for reducing your own stress and worry about your child. Rather than staying stuck in the reactive Rescuer/Persecutor/Victim role. The pro-active work you can do to get grounded and center yourself whenever you feel you are becoming dysregulated, during the day, on a regular basis, is far more important than what words you say in the moment your child is experiencing a crisis.
People who suffer from panic attacks tend to be highly sensitive to the energy of those around them, and so feeling your calming, soothing energy in a crisis will be particularly helpful in co-regulating in a time of crisis.
One of the many things we can do to work on ourselves is to tap away any fears, anxieties, guilt or worries you may have about your ability to respond to a child’s emotional dysregulation in a calm way. That’s one way of breaking the cycle of reacting to panicky emotions with anger (‘The Persecutor’ role) or fear (‘The Rescuer’ role). Another way can be to tap away any thoughts that may be blocking our ability to move into a Supporter role, such as:
- ‘I’m not the kind of person who is good with emotions’
- ‘I’m just not good with people’
- ‘I don’t know how to stop the anger response, I’ve had it for so long.’
- ‘I’m helpless, I don’t know what to do when my child panics’
- ‘I freeze and go cold when my child panics, I don’t know how to move out of this state.’
Some of these thoughts may be observations, whereby you are aware and noticing what is happening in your body in response to your child’s panic. We are all human. It’s normal, as part of the human body that we live in, to sometimes freeze and go cold in times of overwhelming stress. The important thing is to notice when this happens, so that we can pro-actively mentally prepare for future situations that can trigger this stress response, so that we can show up in a calmer, more grounded state in future. From this place, we can be of greater support. Similarly, if we choose to hold on to blocking beliefs like ‘I’m helpless’ or ‘I’m not the kind of person who is good with emotions’, this will prevent us from being able to learn and grown in the area of Emotional Intelligence. Tapping is a great way to work on processing the blocks that are holding you back from shifting into a supportive role.
But before you can do that, you need to over-come your habit of delaying taking care of yourself by always putting yourself last. If EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) interest you, I created a free 5-Step EFT tapping guide I created for parents who are ready to start working on their emotional self-care. Click on the link below for instant access.
However, EFT tapping is not the only way to ground yourself into a calmer state that can allow you to be present with your child in their emotional pain – without getting sucked into it and join them in the panic pit. There are loads of somatic meditations and exercises you can do to help ground yourself. Here’s an example of a 5-minute meditation that teacher and parent of two, Lili Velo, found very helpful for helping to heal her nervous system, for her and her child.
PANIC ATTACKS: HOW PARENTS CAN HELP [STEP 3]
“We define toxic positivity as the excessive and ineffective overgeneralization of a happy, optimistic state across all situations. The process of toxic positivity results in the denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience. Just like anything done in excess, when positivity is used to cover up or silence the human experience, it becomes toxic. By disallowing the existence of certain feelings, we fall into a state of denial and repressed emotions.”
Samara Quintero & Dr Jamie Long
Before you trying to move from Step 2 (learning new self-soothing skills to help yourself stay calm and self-regulate) to Step 3 (help your child down-regulate through co-regulation) it’s very important to ask yourself whether you are embodying the change you want to see. You may need to remove yourself from the Drama Triangle dynamic, while you learn new self-soothing skills. As you start to embody a calmer state, you may even feel ready to try teaching your child the new self-soothing skills that you are learning, to see if they might help them self-regulate better, too.
A word of caution: sometimes, we’ve been conditioned to respond to challenges and situations that are really horrible with toxic positivity. Toxic positivity can prevent us from realizing when we’ve gone as far as we can by just ‘trying to forget about it’ by keeping ourselves busy, ‘trying to figure it out on our own’, and acting like everything’s okay…when it’s not.
If you notice that you still get triggered when your child comes to you in the middle of a panic attack, and you continue to get triggered into fear/anger-based states when they feel panicky – you need to seek help. We sometimes need professional support to help us reduce how triggering certain situations can be.
Sometimes we need to accept that there’s only so far we can go on our own. It’s OK to ask for help. Sometimes, we just need a professional who can help us co-regulate, before we can help someone else co-regulate. Because we’re human. No one is Superman / Wonderwoman. As a parent…you’re human, too.
About the author
Eleni Vardaki works online to support parent, teacher, and student well-being. Her mission is to help bridge the gap between mainstream education and the wellbeing skills we need to thrive. She believes in doable, sustainable interventions for student wellbeing in school and family cultures that value student and community wellbeing.