Forget Freaking Out: How to parent panic attacks in kids with ADHD

Does your child or teen ever tell you that they are having a panic attack? Or, do they describe symptoms such as shortness of breath, a pounding heart and the sudden feeling like the world is closing in on them? Panic attacks are awful for everyone who experiences them. Kids can feel terrified, unsure about what is happening to them. Parents, desperate to assist their kids can be freaked out themselves and confused about what to do. Kids who live with ADHD typically struggle managing their big feelings anyway. In these moments of acute anxiety, they told me  that it’s like flailing around in rough waves with no raft.

Since there’s no rational thinking in the midst of a panic attack, it doesn’t work to trying to talk to your child reasonably in these moments. Yelling at them to calm down is equally ineffective. Panic attacks are best managed by having a concrete set of steps to follow that you and your child or teen have figured out beforehand. When you work together to name the triggers and notice the warning signs, it’s easier to create an effective strategy to use in a panicked moment.

The goal isn’t to eliminate panic attacks: that may be unrealistic for now. Instead, the immediate goal should be to teach your son or daughter techniques for self-soothing in uncomfortable moments. Focus on becoming familiar with the clues that anxiety is rising and how to respond to those signals to lessen their intensity. We want to turn down the volume on the anxiety so it doesn’t mushroom into a panic attack. 

Following the plan that you’ve previously created and practiced together instead of trying to find a solution in the middle of a heated, emotional moment keeps things from escalating even further. Over time, by learning how to use tools to reduce anxiety, kids become more confident about what to do to soothe themselves when they start to feel agitated. The frequency of panic attacks goes down. 

While the following suggestions are meant to be helpful, they do not substitute in any way for taking your child to see their physician to rule out any physiological issues that could be causing panic. Please check out other causes too, such as bullying, learning disabilities, problematic teacher dynamics or other environmental factors.

Here’s what you can do:

In a quiet moment, sit down with your son or daughter and talk about how you can work together as a team to cut down panic attacks and reduce anxiety. Ask them what internal changes signal that they are feeling anxious and later panicked. Share some of your own too. Increased heart rate, shortness of breath, perspiration, a knot in the stomach or sudden headache are common signs that anxiety is rising. Write these insights down  

Next, show them the list of tools below and customize each option for them. Put the final document on both of your phones, computers, iPads, etc. and make a copy for the kitchen, the car and their room so everybody can refer to it when necessary. Consider sharing this with your child’s school counselor or teacher as well so you are all on the same page. 

  1. Breathing exercises: Alternate nostril yoga breathing calms you down quickly. Put your index finger on your right nostril: breathe in and out of your left nostril. Now switch and breathe in and out of your right nostril. Do this on both sides for 4-6 times until you start to settle down. 
  2. Make a playlist of songs that you love, soothe you or just make you smile. Give the playlist a fun title like “Cooling down tunes.”
  3. Change your environment: If you are inside, go to a different room or step outside. Notice what’s happening around you as you are inhaling in for 4 counts and exhaling for 4 counts. 
  4. Go to the bathroom and wash your face and hands. Tell yourself something encouraging such as: “You’ve got this.” “This has happened before and you’ve survived.” “It’s just your fears trying to run the show. Slow down so you can calm down.” 
  5. Physical movement:  Walk, run, ride a stationary bike, jump on a trampoline, etc. Get the body moving so kids move their attention from out of their heads and into what’s happening around them.
  6. Comfort activity: Reading, drawing, coloring, Soduku, playing with a pet, Lego’s, listening to a story, receiving a hug–these can also quiet the system until the storm passes.