I’m sitting with a friend and ex-work colleague. We’re catching up on our respective lives when he suddenly asks me what it’s like dealing with and writing about mental illness all the time. The question takes me by surprise, but I point out that it’s very rewarding and that it’s not “all the time.” I gesture to the coffee shop we’re sitting in and say, “Case in point.” A silence follows. I can see there is something on his mind and I suspect that he’s calculating whether to disclose it. “Problems?” I prompt. His decision made, he leans toward me over the table and taps his chest. “I thought I was having a heart attack,” he mutters. Then he taps his temple with his forefinger and mouths, “Panic attack.”
So there it is, a man in his fifties who, to my knowledge, has recently experienced his first panic attack. He’d been preparing notes for an important talk when he’d begun to feel sick, breathless, and tight across his chest. An ambulance was called, tests were run at the hospital, and he later returned home feeling utterly baffled and embarrassed. “The worst thing was watching (my daughter) crying and clinging to her mother,” he says. I commiserate and then ask how he explained to his daughter what had happened. He shrugs and says, “Daddy was ill, but he’s alright now.”
Not surprisingly, his panic event had clearly unsettled him. He’d returned from the hospital and done his Internet research on the topic of panic but he felt there was still more to learn—“trade secrets,” as he put it. I begin to suspect an ulterior motive for our get-together. I listen to what he’d learned and say he sounds well-informed. But he wants to know his chances of having another attack, when and where it might happen, whether he should take medication, and so forth.
My answers seem to validate what he already knows, so once the heat leaves the conversation I come back to the topic of his daughter. “I think it might be a good idea for you to talk to her about it,” I say. His eyebrows raise and he looks at me like I’d said the dumbest thing imaginable. “She’s seven,” he blurts out, as if that explains everything I need to know.
Our 20-minute catch-up stretches to an hour, which incidentally costs him another coffee and a blueberry muffin. It would take too long to go into the details, but suffice it to say I offer up my opinions about why I think it’s important to talk to your children about anxiety issues. What follows is a general summary of my views on the matter:
In the case of a panic attack, it’s self-evident that even young children will notice something is very wrong if they are with you at the time. This can be quite unsettling for children and is likely to raise all sorts of questions, which they may or may not ask. Leave them guessing and there’s a danger that their concerns will start to grow and cause them further anxiety.
There’s no need to use big words or technical terms, as this will be overwhelming. Children understand words like “sick” and that’s fine.
Reassure children that there’s nothing they have to do and that they bear no responsibility for your worry or anxiety issue(s)
Children look to their parents for reassurance, love, and guidance. By explaining your anxiety, whether it is related to panic or your “worry thinking,” you show that you are aware of the issue and are doing things to manage the situation.
Make time for any questions your child or children may have
I have yet to learn whether my friend has taken some or all of my advice. I somehow doubt it, but I do understand his dilemma. If his panic event was a one-off, what would be the point of turning a spotlight on himself? Kids talk, so it could be all around the school in five minutes and shared with other parents.
That’s certainly one perspective, but here’s another. What if it does happen again? What if he is alone with his child at the time? How will it make the child feel? What is the child meant to do? I believe these are the sorts of questions parents with an anxiety disorder need to wrestle with if they have any regard for the welfare of their children. Young children are highly sensitive to vulnerabilities in their parents, yet just a few reassuring words can make all the difference in how they perceive and respond to the issue.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.