My son had a panic attack and is now always worried about getting sick
I’m not much help as I suffer with bad anxiety myself and feel terrible I have passed it on to him
“Anxiety is often a sign of sensitivity and thoughtfulness and many children with anxiety have great strengths that can be harnessed in other areas of their lives.” Photograph: iStock
Question: Last week we ended up in A&E with my eldest boy (a nine-year-old) because he had stomach pains and said he couldn’t breathe.
The doctors said he did not have an illness but instead had a panic attack due to anxiety. The whole experience scared the life out of us. He has always been a bit of worrier and it has got progressively worse over last year after he got a bad flu and took ages to recover.
Now he is always worried that he is going to get sick, amongst other things. I’m not much help as I suffer with bad anxiety myself. I tend to worry when he gets anxious so I can make matters worse. I probably should have managed things better and not taken him to hospital during the panic attack. I feel terrible that he has got this anxiety from me. I’m getting help for myself and have attended a therapist for CBT.
I think I am making progress but it is hard work – I want to also support my son and to find a way to cope day-to-day.
Answer: It is scary to witness your child having a panic attack for the first time, so it is understandable how you responded. When you see your child experiencing symptoms of stomach pains and restricted breathing, of course you want to get a medical check-up to outrule any physical causes or illnesses. The good news is that once you understand these symptoms are caused by anxiety then you can respond differently to help him. A panic attack is caused by a pattern of escalating anxiety: initial worries cause physical symptoms such as your heart beating faster, which causes you worry is something wrong with racing thoughts such as “am I having a heart attack”.
These thoughts cause your anxiety to escalate, and the symptoms to dramatically increase, leading to panic. The key to managing panic is learning to interrupt this cycle, by calming your thoughts and relaxing your body. Lots of different techniques can work such as mindfulness ( just noticing your feelings rather than reacting to them) or by positive self-talk (coaching yourself to calm down – “this is just the anxiety, it will pass soon”).
Managing your own anxiety
It is great that you are getting help for your own anxiety by attending a cognitive behavioural therapist. The more you are able to manage your anxiety the more you will be able to help your son. While anxiety is not contagious like physical illness, worries are ‘catching’ and can grow between people. If you panic when your son expresses a worry, this can cause him to worry more. Alternatively, if you can respond calmly and thoughtfully, you will help him to be calm and to break the anxiety cycle. All the techniques you learn in your CBT therapy will be helpful. Make a note of what is working for you, so you can try and respond in this way to your son.
Helping your son
You can also teach your son lots of different ways to manage his anxiety. Probably the most important one is to help him become aware of what is happening. For example, when he experiences an anxiety symptom such as breathlessness, you might say “that’s sounds like the anxiety in your body . . . let’s think together how we can calm it”. The key is to respond calmly, using a gentle reassuring tone of voice. In addition, there are great child-centred videos and worksheets online that can teach children other techniques such as how to relax in the face of anxiety, or how to identify and change worrying thoughts or how to talk out problems and worries.
You can also consider getting professional help by either taking him to a therapist or by consulting with one yourself as a parent so you can learn how to best manage your son’s symptoms.
Letting go of guilt
As parents, we are always prone to feeling guilty about how we parent our children. Anxious parents are often the worst for being self-critical and feeling guilty. Or in your case you can feel guilty that your son is experiencing similar problems to you, worrying that he has somehow “got the anxiety from you”. The problem with guilt is that it can be such a debilitating emotion and it is important to move on from it. As well as feeling guilty, give yourself credit that you are doing your best for your son. By writing in to me, by getting your own help, you are showing that you are a concerned parent taking steps to help your son.
Also, the fact that you have anxiety as well as your son can be helpful to him. It means you can empathise with what he is thinking and feeling. It also means that you have ideas and knowledge as to what helps overcome anxiety, all of which you can share with him. In addition, anxiety is often a sign of sensitivity and thoughtfulness and many children with anxiety have great strengths that can be harnessed in other areas of their lives.
For more information, please see my six part series on overcoming childhood anxiety on irishtimes.com.
John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He is author of several parenting books including Positive Parenting and Parenting Teenagers. See solutiontalk.ie for details of courses and articles