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Can Parents Help Reduce the Risk of their Children Developing Panic Disorder?

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Updated October 09, 2013

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Parents can help reduce the risk of anxiety and panic disorders in their children.

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Question: Can Parents Help Reduce the Risk of their Children Developing Panic Disorder?

Even though panic disorder is rarely present during childhood, children of parents with panic disorder are 8 times more likely to develop it themselves when they enter adulthood. Considering the strong genetic contribution to panic disorder, many parents may wonder what they can do to help prevent their children from developing panic disorder.

It is important for parents to keep in mind that just like many medical issues, there is no guaranteed way to prevent their child from developing panic disorder. No parent is perfect and no parent should feel guilty if their child develops it. Like most mental health disorders, it is caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and social influences.

Panic disorder and anxiety in children is often displayed differently than it is in adulthood. Children typically show signs of anxiety through separation issues, fears and phobias, and excessive concern about the safety of family members. If you have noticed anxious behaviors in your child, take them to a professional who can first make sure it is not physical problem causing the nervousness. Early diagnosis is crucial in helping a child receive proper care for an anxiety disorder.

You may have noticed that your child is unusually afraid of different situations or is displaying frequent and excessive nervousness. There are ways in which parents can teach their children to feel more relaxed, safe, and in control. Teaching these habits to your child now can increase the chances that such behaviors will be carried on into their adulthood. Listed below are ways in which parents can be supportive of their children who are anxious and fearful.

Answer:

Be a Role Model

Parents who display chronic fear and nervous attitudes typically have equally anxious children. Excessively cautious parents may unknowingly send the message to their children that others can’t be trusted or that the world is a scary place. Such learned viewpoints can also derail children from taking chances throughout life and considering the possibilities that the world has to offer them.

Help your child grow up into a self-reliant adult by teaching appropriate amounts of independence and self-reliance. Encourage your child to explore and experience the world around them. As your child mature into adolescents, gradually teach additional responsibility and autonomy. These lessons will help them grow into young adults who are confident and capable of launching into their own lives instead of fearing to leave the nest.

Children can develop learned phobias by watching their parental figures become afraid. For example, if you display a fear a flying while on a long flight with your child you can unknowingly pass this fear on to them. A better way for nervous parents to protect their child is to try not to display excessive amounts of worry in front of them. Try your best to show your child how to remain in control even when feeling afraid.

Another way to lower anxiety in the home is to limit or completely eliminate common anxiety-producing events, such as watching tragic stories on the news. Children are not emotionally ready to handle sad and catastrophic events that are often shown on television and in newspapers. When it isn’t possible to eliminate your child’s exposure to stories about tragic events, utilize this time to role model behaviors. Model a calmer attitude by remaining composed and relaxed when you notice your child is getting nervous about an event or situation. Let them know that it is okay to feel worried by sharing with them how you feel and encouraging your child to do the same.

Allow for Open Expression of Feelings

Sometimes adults with panic disorder grew up in a family in which expressing their inner feelings was discouraged. Parents may believe that some emotions are unflattering, such as discouraging boys to cry or girls to get angry. Parents with this viewpoint may even shame a child for having an opinion or guilt them into denying their feelings. It is important that parents provide an environment in which children feel safe to express themselves even when feeling vulnerable.

To help your child be self-assured in their own thoughts and feelings, allow them to openly communicate how they are feeling, encourage assertiveness, and tolerate reasonable expressions of personal opinions. Also, it is important to assist your child in identifying their feelings. Ask how certain life events have impacted them. This can be incredibly helpful during difficult transitions, such as moving and changing schools. To encourage body awareness and physical reactions to stress, ask them how they feel throughout their body, such as if they notice pain in their stomach or tightness in their chest.

Provide Structure and Consistency

Anxious children frequently thrive in households that have routines. Create scheduled times for meals, bedtime, homework, and play. Also, teach good habits such as packing up their school bags the night before or slowly unwinding with quiet time before bed. Such routines may allow your child to feel more organized, prepared, and relaxed.

Parents must also provide disciplinary consistency, often through rewards and consequences. Children need rules and discipline to help them feel safe and to know what is expected of them. By providing them with structure around rules and behaviors, you are letting them feel a stronger sense of control and security.

Teach Relaxation and Coping Skills

Parents can help a child overcome fear is by supporting small steps the child takes in facing an anxiety-provoking situation. For example, a child who is afraid to talk to adults may be encouraged to give the money to the clerk when the family is out shopping. Praising the child for even the tiniest successes can instill confidence and prevent avoidance behaviors.

Panic and anxiety can also be reduced by coaching your child to learn relaxation techniques that are modified for children. For example, you can teach deep breathing exercises when your child is afraid. You can even tap into your child’s imaginative side by having them envision that they are blowing bubbles or a balloon when they exhale and trying to make a belly like a beach ball when they inhale.

Another way to make relaxation fun is to teach a version of progressive muscle relaxation to your child. You can use a soft prop, such as a pillow or large stuffed animal. With the child standing or lying down, guide him/her to tighten up all muscles from their feet all the way up to their forehead. Have your child squeeze the prop tightly and with a deep breath out, coach them to let go of the prop and allow their entire body to relax. Repeat this several times in a row to assist them in release any built up tension.

There are also plenty of books for parents and children to read together as a way to cope with their panic and anxiety. Some popular books include When My Worries Get Too Big! by Kari Dunn Buron and What to Do When you Worry Too Much by Dawn Huebner.

Teaching coping techniques can be a great way to open up discussion about anxiety, normalize your child’s experience, and promote bonding with your child. As mentioned, there is no surefire way for parents to prevent panic disorder. However, listed here are some tips that any parent can incorporate into a child’s life to reduce nervousness and help manage feelings of anxiety.

Sources:

American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1994.

Bourne, E. J. The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook. 4th ed. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2005.

Faravelli, C., Di Paola, F., Scarpato M. A., & Fioravanti, G. “Parental Attitudes of Mothers of Patients with Panic Disorder.” Giorn Ital Psicopat 16 (2101):144-149.

Nicols, M. P. Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods , 9th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2008.

Orton, G. L. Strategies for Counseling with Children and Their Parents. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1997.

Shapiro, L. E., & Sprague, R. K. The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook for Kids: Help for Children to Cope with Stress, Anxiety & Transitions. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2009.

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