Whatever you do, don’t cry wolf. If you do, a huge, bloodthirsty beast with pointy teeth and yellow eyes will come and gobble you up. Do NOT cry wolf. Do NOT ask for help unless you really need it. Ever.
That nightmare-worthy story totally freaked me out as a child. Remember it? “The Boy Who Cried Wolf?” Ask your kids. They will! In it, a shepherd boy repeatedly tricks villagers into thinking a wolf is attacking his flock. He does it so many times that, eventually, when a wolf DOES come howling out of the woods, no one comes to the boy’s rescue… and then the wolf eats him. Argh! Lesson learned. Nightmares fueled.
You’ve probably used the phrase yourself in parenting. “Don’t cry wolf.” Right? Don’t tell lies. Only ask for help if you’re really in trouble, really in danger. But, what if you genuinely feel like you’re in danger. What if you feel like your heart might stop; your breath might never fill your lungs again. What if you feel like you’re dying, drowning, disappearing under the water or caught right between the wolf’s jaws… but you’re not? I’ve felt like this. I’ve had panic attacks. I’ve been entirely convinced that my life was ending, even though it wasn’t.
Once, in 3rd grade, after I’d finally recovered from an agonizing attack and was lying, panting on the floor in my school nurse’s office, I remember a confused and worried teacher saying to me “Don’t cry wolf, Chloe. It’s wrong to pretend that you’re sick when it’s all in your head.” This stuck with me. It made my panic attacks so much worse, because when I was struck by panic I truly felt like I WAS dying, that I desperately needed help.
Now that I’m older and, luckily, hardly ever get panic attacks I’ve finally realized something important – that story is the baddie, not me. I was never crying wolf. When I was having a panic attack, my body was beyond my control. I was in full fight or flight mode, with my body screaming at me that I had to take action or die. I felt like I was truly under threat. I wasn’t in real physical danger; a wolf wasn’t actually coming to get me, but I felt as afraid as I would’ve been if that wolf were going for my throat. I definitely wasn’t “crying wolf.”
It’s hard to understand panic attacks when you’ve never had one. Being faced with panicking child can be super stressful and even panic inducing. We may clutch at verbal straws in that high anxiety moment without realizing that we’re actually pumping up our child’s panic rather than helping to deflate it. So, what are the things to avoid saying to a child, teen or anyone who’s having a panic attack… apart from “Don’t cry wolf?” How can you show that you understand what that little panicking person is going through? How can you show your child that you understand that they’re not crying wolf?
1. “Just stop it!”
Aka “That wolf has just bitten off your leg, but just walk on it, OK?”
Would you say “just walk on it!” to someone who’s broken their leg? Nope.
There may not be an obvious external physical symptom, but panic has a 100% genuine physical cause. The emotional brain, our Fight or Flight Center, has hijacked your panicked child and has shut down her logical brain. If she could control her panic, she would.
Try: “I can see you’re scared. I can see that this is really hard.” Then stay quietly with your child.
This reassures your child or teen that you acknowledge that she’s going through something real and that you’re right there with her.
2. “Calm Down.”
Aka “Don’t be scared of that blood-thirsty wolf. Chill out.”
If you were pumped up on an adrenaline rush; your heart felt like it was pounding its way out of your chest; you couldn’t catch your breath; you were dizzy and sick; your body was shaking and your hands and feet tingling… could you “calm down?”
Even though it might seem totally crazy and irrational to you as an outsider, the fight or flight response is forcing your little one to experience a ton of out-of-control physical symptoms. If you tell her to “calm down,” she may feel that you’re saying she should be able to control her symptoms. Nothing like the added pressure of a command you can’t obey to boost a panic attack to an even scarier level!
Try: “Is there anything I can do? Can I help you?”
This shows you’re your child’s ally and understand she may genuinely need your help. You could also remind your child of the tools or strategies which we discuss in our new animated series on panic here.
3. “Don’t think about it.”
Aka “Don’t think about that wolf.”
For the rest of this paragraph, don’t think of a white wolf.
Have you heard of Ironic Process Theory? It describes the psychological process where deliberate attempts to suppress a thought actually make it pop up more often. Daniel Wegner first experimented with this in 1987 and found that people told not to think of a white bear thought of it far more often than those who were told it was fine to think about it.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t get that white wolf out of my head while I’m writing this paragraph. I bet it’s having fun inside your head too! Wegner repeated this experiment with other thoughts: He discovered that people who tried to suppress thoughts of chocolate or cigarettes ate and smoked way more than those who didn’t. Explains all those failed diets!
You can imagine what telling someone who’s panicking “not to think about it” will do.
Try: “Shall we move to a different place?”
Shifting the environment to can help shift your child’s mindset. Moving to a more quiet, private place can help him to feel less exposed or embarrassed.
4. “This is all in your mind.”
Aka “You’re just imagining that you’re scared of that wolf. Get a grip.”
Your child isn’t “creating” the panic using their imagination. Panic disorder is a real, diagnosable condition causing intense physical, mental and emotional symptoms. Saying that “this is all in your mind” implies that your child is to blame for their symptoms and is somehow weak-minded. This can lead to a feeling of loneliness and increased stress… and more panic.
Try: “I’m here for you.”
This may boost your child’s confidence and feeling of strength, helping them to cope with the panic symptoms. It will also help them to feel more safe and secure.
5. “Just sit down.”
Aka “A wolf is coming to bite you, but just stay there, don’t move OK?”
Your child’s body is convinced that she is in mortal danger and she must find a way to survive. The adrenaline rush during panic forces us to be hyper-vigilant, ready to fight or flee. That’s why the instinct to stay alert and upright feels so strong during a panic attack. Movement often feels essential. Some people do experience the “freeze” response during an attack too. If that’s what they need, go with it and stay at their level if they need to sit or lie down.
Try: It’s often best to leave the movement question up to the person panicking. If they seem to want to move around, you can suggest “Want to walk or pace with me? You can take my arm.” If they are frozen to the spot, stay with them.
6. “It’s OK. You’re OK,” or “There’s nothing wrong with you.”
Aka “There’s nothing scary about being attacked by a wolf.”
The thing is, your child is not actually OK. I remember feeling as distressed by my panic attack as I would have been if a gun were pointed at my head…or if a wolf were attacking me. I was that distressed. Panic often strikes suddenly without an obvious spark and without warning causing instant distress. Panic attacks often last several minutes or more according to the National Institute of Mental Health and the feelings of distress can last even longer. That definitely does not feel OK.
Try: “This feels scary and uncomfortable now. It will be OK. This will pass.”
Reassurance, acknowledgement and a vision of a positive future can help refocus and strengthen your child or teen.
7. “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Aka “What wolf?”
They know, believe me! There’s often a voice inside your panicked child saying “there’s nothing to be afraid of.” This part makes her feel more anxious, nervous and out of control. It used to make me panic even more because I felt like I was going crazy and was no longer in touch with reality! Part of panic involves this “depersonalization” or “derealization” – feeling like you’re losing your grip. Highlighting that your panicking child isn’t seeing the world as it really is will only make the panic worse.
Try: “We can get through this together.”
Being a solid, constant support may give your child a sense of stability and “reality” she can cling onto when everything else seems uncertain.
8. “You’re overreacting.”
Aka “Wolves really aren’t as scary as you’re making them out to be.”
Panic feels huge and terrifying to the suffering child. Minimizing your child’s experience will only increase their stress and panic. Panic is not just an emotional reaction that your child should be able to control – it’s about real symptoms. Accusing your child of over-reacting will only make them feel more alone, insecure and confused. Many kids feel ashamed and embarrassed by their panic attacks – labeling their attacks as “over-reactions” just reinforces those insecurities.
Try: “You will get through this. You’re doing the best that you can.”
Boosting your child’s confidence rather than pointing out their vulnerabilities is what they really need.
9. “You just need to face your fears to get over them.”
Aka “You just need to go and hang out with wolves a bit more. Then you won’t be afraid of them.”
“Exposure Therapy” or staying in a situation long enough to learn that a catastrophe won’t occur can actually work for panic attacks as long as your child is willing to go through the process. Forcing a child to face their fears can make those fears even worse. Plus, some attacks come on without an obvious cause. Until you know what is the cause of the panic attack, you can’t expose yourself to it. Exposure therapy must be gradual, involve a very specific process, professional or trained support and scientifically proven interventions. There’s no “just” about facing your fears.
Try: “Take this at your own pace.”
By slowly learning to deal with anxiety-provoking situations, your child or teen can build his or her sense of self-reliance and learn how to effectively cope with fears one step at a time.