My Anxiety Plan (MAP) for Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia
The following strategies are designed for you the parent to use with your child as s/he begins to tackle panic disorder and/or agoraphobia. These strategies are best used for children with mild-moderate signs of this type of anxiety. For children with more severe symptoms or who have been diagnosed with panic disorder and/or agoraphobia, we recommend treatment with a mental health professional, although MAP strategies can be used at home to support your child’s therapy work.
Step 1. Helping your child become an expert on anxiety
This is a very important first step, as it helps children understand what is happening to them when they experience anxiety. Teaching your child that the worries and physical feelings s/he is experiencing have a name -anxiety- and that millions of other people also have anxiety, can be a great relief. Help your child become an expert on anxiety by providing him or her with facts and important information.
To learn how to explain this to your child, see Anxiety 101: What You and Your Child Need to Know About Anxiety and Talking to Your Child about Anxiety and the ABCs of Anxiety: Understanding How Anxiety Works and Fight-Flight-Freeze.
Step 2: Teaching your child about panic disorder and/or agoraphobia
- Reading or explaining some of the information outlined on the panic disorder and/or agoraphobia main page can help your child to feel more in control of what is happening to him or her. Knowledge is power.
- Explain to your child that panic attacks are the body’s “flight-freeze-fight” response kicking in. This F3 response prepares our body to defend itself, like when our heart beats faster to pump blood to our muscles, or when we hyperventilate to take in extra oxygen, both of which give us the energy to run away or fight off danger. This response system is great when there is danger. But sometimes our body reacts when there is no real danger. This false alarm is what we call a panic attack. Although panic attacks may feel uncomfortable or even scary, they’re harmless. There is no medical evidence that panic attacks cause harm to the body or brain. Fortunately, panic attacks are brief (typically lasting only 5 to 15 minutes), although they sometimes feel like they go on forever. Other people (except those very close to you), cannot tell that you are having a panic attack. Finally, for some children, these panic attacks are so upsetting that they become worried about having more attacks in a variety of situations. As a result, they believe they will be unable to manage in these situations that they stop going places and doing fun stuff. This is when agoraphobia can start to take over.
- Let your child know that panic attacks are common, and that there are other children who have panic disorder and/or agoraphobia. Help them understand that hey are not the only one who feels this way. That they really are not alone.
Step 3: Creating your child’s MAP
The best way to help your child deal with panic disorder and/or agoraphobia, is to give him or her access to tools that can evaluate and challenge his/her fear of panic and related worries. These tools are intended to increase your child's ability to tolerate anxiety, rather than to eliminate anxiety. Anxiety exists everywhere, and therefore it is an illusion to believe we can eliminate the source and experience of anxiety. It is far more effective to provide your child with the tools to tolerate and cope, rather than to control and escape. For panic and agoraphobia, you might want to use any or all of the following tools to create your child’s My Anxiety Plan (MAP). These tools are listed in a recommended order, although proceeding in this order will depend on the needs and interests of your child. Panic Attack Exposures and Facing My Fears will be two of the most important tools for your child to use to gain relief from his/her symptoms.
- Talking to Your Child about Anxiety
- When Anxiety Becomes a Problem: What’s Normal and What's Not
- Naming the Bully
- Learning to Relax: Calm Breathing
- Learning to Relax: Muscle Relaxation
- Floating with Panic
- Panic Attack Exposures
- Balanced Thinking
- Cognitive Coping Cards
- Addressing Excessive Reassurance Seeking
- Facing My Fears
- Rewarding Bravery
- Tolerating Uncertainty
- Returning to Routines and Pleasant Events
- Applied Tension Technique
Final point: Although increased knowledge and the many tools available on this website can be very effective in helping you to manage your child’s panic and/or agoraphobia, sometimes it is not enough. Sometimes children have very severe anxiety, and despite all your best efforts, your child might still be struggling daily with anxiety symptoms. If this is the case, seek some professional help through a consult with your family doctor, psychiatrist, or a child psychologist/mental health worker.