“Mom, I don’t want you and dad to die.”
I could tell with that one sentence it was going to be a long night. It was bed time, the time when the lights go down and the noises stop… the time where anxiety roars it’s head the most.
I took a deep breath, walked over to his bed side and tried to calm him the best I could. First we usually start with slow and steady deep breaths; in through the nose and out through the mouth, then I try and talk to him about something happy. Something that will take his thoughts away from whatever he’s so worried about. (affiliates included)
Tonight it was different though. Tonight, no sooner had I sat down to start deep breathing he was in a panic attack and hysterically crying. All he could think about was his parents dying and just how badly that would hurt him. His mind had ahold of that thought and wouldn’t let go.
Thinking about his upcoming birthday party and doing a few deep breaths wasn’t going to work.
It hurts my heart in incredibly painful ways to see this happen to him. I think it hurts more than most because I completely understand how it feels and just how scary it all seems. I’ve got 30-something years of anxiety under my belt.
So I’m sitting there in his dark room lit by light projected stars, holding him to tell him that I’m here and it’s OK and it hits me…
“Buddy, what’s 9 + 5?”
“Umm… umm…” he says as he sniffles and wipes his eyes. “Umm, 14?”
“Yes.” I tell him, and then I ask him another.
And another, making sure they are not problems he knows from memory. These need to be problems his brain must solve.
When you are panicking like that, you are in fight or flight mode. You can see no rational reasoning. You cannot simply calm yourself down. (This is the Lymbic system of the brain, and since I’m not a doctor, I’ll leave the brain explanations to them, check out this fantastic article here.)
In order to stop that, you have to turn on the part of your brain that is rational.
For myself, I know basic cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to do this. When I have panic attacks I do things like look at an object in the room and count how many sides it has, describe the color of it, the texture. I can grab a pillow next to me and feel the fabric, describing to myself in detail what it feels like.
These are all ways to get the logical part of my brain to kick back on quickly.
But for my six-year-old, it’s a little different. I need to do something for him to calm down that emotional, fear-driven part of his brain and turn on the logical part.
The best way to do that? Math questions.
I ask him math questions that are hard enough that he must think them through to get an answer, but not hard enough that it is frustrating and causes more irritation. You’ll need to ask questions based on your child’s specific math skills, questions you think they are capable of answering. I don’t have a certain number of questions I ask, I just do it until I can see he is starting to relax.
I was sad for him that night but I also felt really hopeful when it was all over that I had a new tool for helping him out of a panic attack. It is crucial to understand how to help them not only so they can feel better in the moment but so that we can give them the skills to help themselves when we aren’t around.
Anxiety and panic attacks are a hard way of life and every little thing we can do to fight against it is worth a try.
If you’re parenting a child with anxiety I really encourage you take a look at Crush Anxiety. It’s an online course by a child therapist that specializes in anxiety.
I partnered with the creator to give you guys a special discount this month (June 2017). It cuts the price all the way down to $97. You can only get this price through my link. For the cost of one therapy session you can get everything you need to help your anxious child. It is so, so good.
Check out the workbook, What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety. It’s an interactive self-help book designed to guide 6-12 year olds and their parents through the cognitive-behavioral techniques.
I also really love Worry Eaters, these plush dolls where children are invited to write or draw their worries and place them in the Worry Eater’s mouth, so that the Worry Eater can hold onto them.