Despite what many think, childhood is not always a carefree time, exempt from feelings of stress and anxiety. This actually couldn’t be further from the truth (in fact, it’s a wonder any of us think this at all; we were all kids once, we should know better). Perhaps childhood tribulations like trying to fit in, trying to establish an identity and dealing with puberty seem trifling now, but at the time, they were real causes of stress and worry, because those problems were the most salient to us as children. Unfortunately, as real as this anxiety is, a child should be lucky to only have these concerns. Rising divorce rates, among many other traumatic life events, are causing kids to mature faster than they should, heaping adult responsibilities on a small frame that just isn’t ready. To make matters worse, kids tend to hold these feelings of stress and anxiety inside, because they are unfamiliar and disturbing. With no outlet for this stress, panic attacks can begin cropping up in kids of all ages, and it’s up to parents to make sure their kids stay healthy and safe.
A recent survey revealed that about 12% of all high school freshman have experienced a panic attack at least once in their lives. Parents aren’t going to be able to be around for all of those. Some will happen at school, some at home and some in private, with no one around to help. Even if a parent can’t be there to witness a panic attack, there are warning signs that could indicate a child is becoming prone to having one. Changes in sleeping patterns, loss of appetite, mood swings, outbursts of anger or sadness, violence, or anti-social behavior could all indicate the germination of a panic disorder within a child. Remember, anyone can have bad days; it’s not until a strong pattern of behavior consistent with these signs shows up that there is cause for concern. Needless to say, these warning signs can apply to a vast number of physical and mental disorders; if a child begins to exhibit some of these signs on a semi-regular basis, parents need to communicate concern in a calm, loving manner and let the child do most of the talking.
Parents concerned about their children suffering from panic attacks first need to understand what constitutes one, before they can be of aid. The most important characteristic of a panic attack is a strong, unprovoked and unspecific feeling of fear or discomfort. In addition, four or more of the following symptoms must be present:
- palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate
- trembling or shaking
- sensations of shortness of breath or smothering
- feeling of choking
- chest pain or discomfort
- nausea or abdominal distress
- feeling dizzy, unsteady, lightheaded, or faint
- derealization (feelings of unreality) or depersonalization (being detached from oneself)
- fear of losing control or going crazy
- fear of dying
- paresthesias (numbness or tingling sensations)
- chills or hot flushes
Once parents understand what a panic attack is, they can help their child understand, too. Most children don’t understand that they are having a panic attack, which often worsens the attack, as it is feared to be a sign of a more serious unknown health problem. Ask children about these symptoms; if they start to seem familiar to them, you can help them understand what is going on. In many cases, simply understanding what a panic attack is, as opposed to being in the dark, can lead to a marked improvement in the incidence of panic attacks.
Some kids are unfortunately predisposed to be more at risk for panic attacks, and just knowing what is happening to them might not be enough. For these kids, the sooner a psychologist or medical professional can be consulted, the better. Left unchecked, childhood panic attacks can develop into seriously debilitating panic disorders later on in adulthood. Cognitive behavioral therapy is currently a leading treatment for panic attacks and disorders, and could work for many children. Medications are also available, but are unnecessary in many cases and pose the risk of creating dependencies.
If you are a parent, keep an eye on your kids’ behavior. Cries for help might be hard to see, but if your child is struggling with panic, stress and anxiety, they will manifest themselves somehow. The best thing you can do for your child is to arm yourself with knowledge, so you can be prepared to come to an understanding as a family about what is happening and what can be done to address it.
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