My eighth-grade daughter recently told me about a panic attack she had in class, saying that she felt anxious about her performance there and “just everything.” I’m scared she’ll have another one. Should I get her professional help? Do you have any advice for helping girls with anxiety?–T. B.
Congratulations on being someone your daughter turns to during stressful times. Even a stable child equipped with good coping strategies may get overwhelmed, and that’s neither a sign of a child’s weakness nor a sign of poor parenting. To help your daughter to open up, simply reinforce you are there to be supportive, without judgment. Listen, be a sounding board, and assure that her most important source of security (you!) remains constant and available.
Young people who get panic attacks sometimes feel the need to be perfect. Communicate clearly that you do not expect perfection and that you accept her just the way she is. Back up these words by being sure not to condemn anyone else for being less than perfect (because she’s listening, even when you think she isn’t) and praising her for her creativity and effort, rather than for “results.” Help her understand that success is not about grades; rather it’s about being happy, generous, compassionate, and creative.
Help her build a repertoire of positive coping strategies so she need not turn to those dangerous “quick-fixes” we fear. Your daughter may find exercise helpful to dissipate her pent-up stress hormones. She may learn the best way to deal with emotions is to talk to a trustworthy adult. She may discover the creative arts are a superb way to express her emotions when words fail her.
I hope that both of you view seeking help as an act of strength, because a strong person knows that she’s both capable and deserving of feeling better, and she’ll take steps to get there. A professional won’t give her answers or solve problems but will instead show her how to build on her existing strengths.
Your daughter will get past this trying time. It’s obvious that she’s blessed with the most important ingredient of a girl’s resilience: a parent who allows her to share her emotions and who loves her unconditionally.
Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg is the author with Martha Jablow of A Parent’s Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2006) and other parenting books.