Tough Stuff

My Kid Is Having An Anxiety Attack. How Can I Help Them Through It?

Seeing your little one struggle like this is so hard.

Anxiety attacks in kids are fairly common.
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Many of us have been there: One minute, your kiddo is OK; the next, they're having an epic anxiety attack. Only, at that moment, you aren't sure what's happening. It can look a lot like a typical kid's meltdown — they're gasping, sobbing, and maybe even trembling. When they're especially little, you may not even be able to discern what triggered the "hysteria." All you know is that your favorite person in the whole world is suddenly in pieces, and you don't know how to fix them.

As it turns out, anxiety attacks in kids are relatively common. Though often called "panic attacks," anxiety attacks differ from panic attacks in many distinct ways. It's also important to note that being anxious is different than having an anxiety disorder. It can be hard to imagine your kid or small child could possibly have anything to be stressed about. However, you'd be surprised (or maybe you wouldn't) at how your child processes the various scenarios in life. Things that seem "normal" or inconsequential to you may seem like giant scary moments to them.

From loud noises for sensory kids to the hint that a beloved visiting family member might be going home soon, all kinds of seemingly little things can stress your child out and cause an anxiety attack. Since figuring out the best way to help your child through something like this can be unclear, Scary Mommy asked experts to weigh in with actionable advice.

What is an anxiety attack?

"With anxiety, it is important to distinguish how it is different [from] fear," says Ryan McDonald, MA, LPC Associate from Clear Skies Counseling. "With fear, there is something in particular a child is afraid of, such as a spider. Anxiety occurs when someone is afraid that something unknown may occur, such as the boogeyman coming out of a child's closet whose door was accidentally left open at night. Fear and anxiety are both normal responses our bodies use to protect us. However, if the symptoms of anxiety become significant enough, they can overwhelm us leading to anxiety attacks."

Raise your hand if you've never considered the difference between fear and anxiety (*raises hand*). Now that you know your child can be anxious about something and not necessarily afraid, you should know what to look out for from anxiety attacks. "The symptoms of an anxiety attack include a pounding or racing heart, sweating, trembling or tingling, chest pain, feelings of impending doom, or feelings of being out of control," says McDonald.

For more minor children, this might look like an unexpected "meltdown" with tears and gasping. You may notice their face is extra hot or red. They may even twitch occasionally.

Anxiety attacks vs. panic attacks: What's the difference?

While panic attacks and anxiety attacks present similarly, they differ in cause and severity. Panic attacks are usually more intense-feeling (and looking). They often come with no trigger.

Meanwhile, anxiety attacks are always triggered by anxiety and a perceived threat. It's important to remember, though, that asking your child to explain their concerns during an attack of any kind might be a little challenging. Focus on calming and reassuring your child, and try sussing out the details later.

What should you do when your child has an anxiety attack?

"If a child is experiencing an anxiety attack, you can help them by removing them from the environment that provoked the attack," suggests McDonald. "You can then let them know what they are experiencing is scary but reassure them that they are safe. Continue to create a calming environment by using a soft voice and helping them to relax by having them lie down, relaxing muscles head from toe, and thinking of their favorite place. Attempt to help them get their breathing under control using techniques such as box breathing (breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds). It is important to understand that it can take 20 to 30 minutes for the symptoms of an anxiety attack to subside and that your child may not immediately respond to your attempts to help them."

"When helping a child through an anxiety attack, you must be extra careful with your words," shares Heather Wilson, LCSW, LCADC, CCTP, and Executive Director at Epiphany Wellness. "Telling them to 'calm down' or 'there's nothing to worry about' isn't going to help. Instead, try to provide more actionable solutions with your words. For example, you can ask them if going outside or drinking water will help them. If your child has recurring anxiety attacks, you and a mental health professional can come up with soothing words to recite. However, don't force the child to talk if they don't want to because it might aggravate their attack even more."

How can you help ease long-term anxiety?

"Unfortunately, there are types of anxiety disorders that you cannot simply make go away. However, you and your child can prepare more adequately for the attacks," says Wilson. "Education is key, so make sure that your child knows about the disorder and how it affects them specifically. Also, develop coping mechanisms that they can use at the moment when anxiety strikes."

There are many experts in the psychology field who can talk to you and your kiddo about the feelings they're processing during an anxiety attack. But, with insurance premiums at an all-time high and psychologists and psychiatrists in short supply, it can be a long and arduous process to get the in-person help your family needs. You can make the best of a crummy situation, though, by trying an array of calming tactics with your child.

1. Address sensory needs.

"When children are experiencing moments of high anxiety, it can be helpful for them to focus on something outside of their own body to help ground them and soothe their nervous system," says Kelly Oriard, co-founder of Slumberkins. "Having something soft and snuggly to hold can bring comfort during these moments. Slumberkins' snugglers and kins are designed with a soft sensory component that many children find soothing and comforting. Children can hold onto a lovey and focus on what it feels like and what it looks like."

Loveys, best friend stuffies, and blankies aren't a new concept. Chances are you had something that helped calm you in scary or emotional times, too. If your kiddo doesn't have a lovey and you're not ready to spend money on something, consider sharing your softest shirt... and leave it unlaundered. Smelling your familiar scent is also fulfilling a sensory need.

2. Use affirmation tools.

"Affirmations can also be very helpful to get through anxiety attacks or panic attacks," shares Oriard. "It's pretty common for people to have thoughts during a panic attack like, 'I'm not going to get through this' or 'Something really bad is happening to me.' Parents can remind children of simple affirmations like 'I can get through this part' or 'This feeling won't last forever.'"

Admittedly, we all know how utterly hard this is, even as grown-ups. If you're with your child during their first anxiety attack(s), you can repeat the affirmation for them. Something as simple as "We're OK" can serve as a mantra or affirmation.

3. Build concrete connections to parent(s).

"Sometimes children experience moments of high anxiety when away from their parents," adds Oriard. "Parents can be very helpful in supporting children to soothe when they are anxious-but what about when they aren't around? If a child has a favorite lovey or stuffie that a parent has given them, this can be a great reminder of the support and love from their parents. Stuffies and loveys can offer that concrete representation of their attachment (or connection) to their parents that helps give them the extra support they need."

That cozy t-shirt can serve the same purpose. So can a kid-friendly locket with a family picture. For older kids, who might feel they're too old for stuffies (*sob*), a worry stone might do the trick. It's something small and smooth (sensory) that they can carry in their pockets and feel whenever they need a dose of parental support, no matter how far away from each other you are.