Jennifer Zare, LISW-CP
Pathways Counseling Center, LLC
Panic attacks can be scary and overwhelming experiences for our children, and can leave parents feeling out of control and unable to cope. Thankfully, there are strategies we can use to help our kids manage these symptoms and move towards a state of calm and peace.
Grounding techniques can be a helpful tool in managing anxiety and other overwhelming emotions. When we experience anxiety or panic, our bodies activate the fight or flight response, triggering a surge of adrenaline and other stress hormones. This can cause physical sensations such as rapid heartbeat, sweating, and shortness of breath, and can also lead to racing thoughts and feelings of fear and uncertainty. Grounding techniques can help us stay connected to the present moment and calm our bodies and minds, which can reduce the intensity of these symptoms.
The physical symptoms experienced during a panic attack make it difficult to focus and think clearly. Thus, it is generally most effective if your child has someone guide them through these simple exercises. Once practiced enough, it becomes more likely that your child will be able to implement these strategies on their own.
Here are 5 simple strategies that you can help your child practice during an episode of panic:
1) The Rainbow Technique: With this technique, children are encouraged to name three things they see in their environment that match each color of the rainbow, starting with red and ending with purple. Example: Name three things you see that are red: they name a red car, a red apple, and a red stop sign. Name three things that are orange: they name an orange highlighter, a sticker on their backpack, and your coat. This gets them looking around their surroundings and out of the panic zone in their mind.
2) Alphabet Naming: Similar to the strategy above the child is asked to name 3 things that start with the letter A, B, C and so forth. Don't be afraid to help them, make it funny if you can. Example: Let's think of three things that start with A! You say: Apple and Aardvark and then ask them for the third one, etc.,
3) Simple Math Problems: Asking your child to do simple math problems can be an effective grounding technique because it provides them with a concrete task that requires focus and attention. Example: Can you tell me what 3+3 = ? What is 4 X 2? 5+7? Keep it simple! However, you can tailor the difficulty to your child's age and ability if needed.
4) Sensory Check In: Help your child use their senses to observe what is happening around them. What do you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel? Take note of the details, such as the colors, sounds, and textures of your environment.
Example: Use the 5-4-3-2-1 strategy! Name 5 things you can see in the environment around you. Try to be as specific as possible, and focus on small details. Name 4 things you can feel (sensation of the air on your skin, the texture of your clothing, or the ground beneath your feet). Name 3 things you can hear (the sound of birds chirping or the hum of traffic in the distance). Name 2 things you can smell (scent of flowers or freshly cut grass). Name 1 thing you can taste (flavor of a mint or a piece of gum).
5). Spell it! Similar to the math example but using words!
Exampe: Have the child spell a word out loud, letter by letter, while visualizing the letters in their mind. Then, have the child spell the word backwards, again visualizing the letters in their mind. Finally, have the child spell the word forwards again, but this time leaving out every other letter. For example, for butterfly "btefy."
When we experience anxiety, our thoughts and emotions can feel overwhelming, making it difficult to stay grounded in the present moment. By giving your child a specific task to focus on, they are able to learn to shift their attention away from anxious thoughts and emotions and towards a more manageable task.
Your children may be resistant to do these activities initially and will likely need your calm help and coaching to try the exercise. Thankfully, as they move through the chosen exercise, you will notice their mind and body gradually calming down.
Some Helpful Resources:
The ADAA website offers information on anxiety disorders in children and teens, as well as tips and strategies for managing symptoms. They also have a search tool to help find a therapist or support group in your area.
The Child Mind Institute website provides resources and information on anxiety and panic disorders in children, including articles, videos, and webinars. They also offer a free online assessment tool to help parents determine if their child may be experiencing anxiety or other mental health concerns.
"What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid's Guide to Overcoming Anxiety" by Dawn Huebner - This book is designed for children ages 6-12 and provides strategies for managing anxiety in a kid-friendly and engaging way.
"The Anxiety Survival Guide for Teens: CBT Skills to Overcome Fear, Worry, and Panic" by Jennifer Shannon - This book is designed for teens and provides information and strategies for managing anxiety, including cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques.