Last week my daughter had a panic attack. I’ve never seen her freak out like that before. Guess there’s a first time for everything.
I could write a whole blog post on how I believe I contributed to my child’s anxiousness (something along these lines, more or less), probably even make it a series, but let’s not get into that. Suffice it to say that nobody is perfect and, in spite of our best intentions, things often get out of control.
Spiraling into panic
On Wednesday we went downtown to run an administrative errand and at some point she simply became too overwhelmed with the task at hand. The more I insisted we got it done and moved on, the more she slid into panic until she could no longer hold it inside and finally burst out in tears. Whatever I said afterwards was followed by a firm plead “Mom, please take me home!”
Once I understood we were no longer treading on rational grounds, I tried a different approach. I took her in my arms and out of the public building into a nearby coffee shop. A change of scenery helped a bit, I think. And then I focused on getting her to calm down.
She was really good. She did her best to breathe as deeply as she could through the sobs and at some point the tears had stopped. Once in a calmer place, she could actually listen to what I had to say and I made damn sure I listened to her, too.
Tip no.1: trust your kid with his feelings.
If he seems terrified, for whatever trite reason beyond your present grasp, then you’d better believe his fears and temporary inability to handle them. So go ahead and acknowledge his feelings. “I see you became very upset” is all it really takes.
Do not, under any circumstances, venture into judging, shaming or belittling. “Don’t act like a baby” or “It’s no big deal” are a big no-no! They only make your child even more scared, realizing that the one person who can help is not even recognizing his struggle.
Don’t ignore or snub the negative emotion. It will certainly not go away simply because you would prefer it wasn’t there. It is there and it is real and it is overwhelming your child. Talk to your kid, empathize, tell him you understand and it is OK. There is nothing wrong in feeling upset or afraid or in a panic. It is normal and common and nothing to be ashamed of.
Show him you believe him and you understand.
Tip no.2: be the trusted ally.
Be very calm. Show her she can rely on you to get her through this. Show her you care and know how to handle the problem.
You might want to ask what exactly happened, what was it that got her upset, but do not expect a straightforward answer. Even breathing may seem difficult at this point, let alone rationalizing the big emotion that just took over.
Try to calmly explain what needs to be done, breaking the task into tiny steps. This will help your child set reasonable expectations and prepare herself for what lies ahead, feeling more secure about her ability to face each of those steps.
“We really need to get that thing over with, so what I suggest we do is first wipe the tears off your face and button up your jacket because it is cold outside, then I will need you to come out and walk with me to the building and after we enter it we will go back to the office and I will put you to sit in a chair and then, if you are still feeling alright, we will see how to finish the job as quickly as possible, so we can be out and heading home as soon as we’re done.” Or something in those whereabouts.
You need to show that you are in control and she can trust you for guidance. She knows she cannot trust herself, so you are her only hope.
Tip no.3: support and offer help.
Ask your child what he needs you to do in order to go through each of those steps. If he cannot answer right away, tell him you will be there for him and you will do whatever he needs. Remind him after each step that you are present and ready to help. Slowly your child will regain composure so your intervention may become less conspicuous, but he will still need you to be present, so stay focused.
Model the calmness
There are (at least) three sound reasons you need to preserve calmness when your child is struggling with his emotions.
Firstly, because you don’t really have much choice. Losing your cool will not only postpone solving the problem, it will most likely add even more fuel to a fire that is already out of control. When your child is in panic, rationalizing will only take you so far and getting mad will almost surely take you in a completely opposite direction. Your child needs you most in these circumstances, she needs your support and your level-headedness to regain her strength to fight off the bad feeling.
Secondly, losing your self-control does an irreparable harm to your relationship with your child and leaves her believing that you are not, effectively, on her side. She is already blaming herself and feeling bad about the outburst, she definitely doesn’t need you to make her feel worse, when all she needs is for someone to help her deal with the big emotion that just overcame her. Your not being there for her will just prove she cannot rely on you when she needs you most.
Thirdly, he will lose his faith in you, seeing as he did that you cannot handle yourself in a crisis. You are his role model so the whole incident is sure to leave a permanent scar on your kids psyche.
On the other hand, if you manage to get a control of yourself, you’ve got a solid chance of getting both of you out of the crunch unharmed and finishing whatever it was you were set out to do. It’s a win-win.
Most importantly, the more you model calmness the less you will need to intervene eventually. At some point your kid will develop the necessary tools to handle difficulties that will come her way and she’ll have only yourself to thank for that. So, be the calmness and level-headedness you want to see.
I wholeheartedly recommend reading these articles on Aha! Parenting, Imperfect Families and Hey Sigmund by coaching professionals who provide very simple yet sound advice on helping you child deal with big and often unexpected emotions.