Stress causes panic in tween daughter. Any advice?

My 12-year-old daughter is a great, smart, funny kid. She’s awesome in so many ways. But she cannot handle stress. If the situation becomes stressful, she gets in a panic state–wide eyes, hot skin, sweats, cries, etc.

For example, she was working on a math homework and came to a problem she didn’t understand. She started to get frantic and I was trying to help explain it, but she started crying and saying, “He never taught us this. What if it was on a test? I don’t know how to do it.” I comforted her and after a few minutes she calmed down and I was able to explain it and she was fine.

Another example is I needed some help counting some items in boxes. She initially agreed to help, but once she saw there were a lot of boxes she started to panic. Her eyes got wide and she backed away saying “No, no, no I can’t do it”.

I’m not talking about typical griping about having to do something she doesn’t like. Most people will grumble about how the task is boring or something like that. But with her, she freaks out. I’m not sure how to handle it or help her get past this. Trying to talk to her freaks her out more because, of course, it’s stressful to talk about.

Anyone been in a similiar situation and have helpful advice?

Sounds to me as if she could use some professional help. Panic attacks are real, and there are ways to deal with them.

What are the consequences for trying and failing to do something like for her, at your house? Is it possible that they’re worse than they were intended to be, for her? Not all kids react the same way to the same consequences.

Has somebody at your house got tiger-motherish tendencies? Some anxious kids don’t do so well with that sort of environment, where there might be humiliation or punishment for trying and failing to do something. I felt bad about how my parents (especially my mom) reacted when I tried and failed to do something. My response to that was to only attempt to do things that I was sure I could accomplish. Probably not the kind of response most parents are trying to get from that parenting style.

There shouldn’t be any kind of punishment for anxious behavior. Does anyone get upset with her when she does get anxious? The problem with punishing anxious behavior is that it can lead to a vicious cycle- she starts feeling anxious, then thinks about the punishment she might get for it and feels more anxious.

I was punished for anxiety relating to achievement. The reason was that I had been a stereotypically bright child up to the age 12 or so, and when the tables turned (it was algebra that did it), it freaked my parents out so badly they couldn’t even admit it to themselves. I had to take the hit for suddenly not performing.

It later came out that I had ADD, which 30 years later is still a sore talking point with us. Has your daughter shown any ADD-like tendencies?

Has this just started recently? I recall at the beginning of puberty, I had very little control of my emotions (especially stress).

I would see a doctor (starting with GP and moving where they direct you).

A professional assessment would probably be a good idea. But the first thing I’d suggest is sitting and talking with her about anxiety/panic attacks when she’s calm. Maybe make a date to go out and have pie, or sit and shell peas together or something. (Busy hands sometimes make the topic of conversation more incidental and therefore less threatening.)

I wouldn’t expect to solve the problem with one sit-down, but it would be an opportunity to ask her what it feels like when it happens. Ask if she can remember something that she was panicked about that turned out to be fine. Let her know that you’re concerned. That you don’t want her to be unhappy like that, and that you don’t want her to have her life limited by a temporary state.

The basic idea is to define the problem and discuss possible ways to address it. At twelve, it could be something that she’ll grow out of or something that she’ll develop the skills to deal with. Sometimes counseling can help the discussion, but I wouldn’t jump into that without talking it over with her. It may be that with coaching and advance planning, she can work through it. It sounds like she needs a strategy, though.

A professional assessment is different from counseling. They’re pricier and quite often medication is suggested. Consider whether you and your daughter would be open to medication before scheduling any assessment. I know at least one person who takes daily pills and has additional pills to take if she feels the panic coming on. You can tell if she has missed a dose.

I knew her before she got her prescription and the difference is huge. During a state of anxiety, her perception and reasoning were strongly affected. She could not track other people’s moods at all and misunderstood most of what was said to her. Everything had to filter through the panic.

But before she got her assessment and started trying different strategies and meds, her SO talked with her over and over (during calm times) about what she was doing. Because the reality she was experiencing was not the same reality as everyone else in the room.

Then there were months of “you’re doing it again” and “you’re not listening any more” and “what do you think I just said?” before she began to consider not trusting her internal state. Then when she was ready, she went and talked to someone about the problem.

The key seems to be learning to recognize the panic and having a strategy for dealing with it. I hope that this is a temporary thing for your daughter, and that you can find a way to minimize the effects of it. Maybe you could try practicing some key words and phrases. “You’re doing it again.” = “All right. It’s not the end of the world. Deep breaths. It’s not the end of the world.” (Your phrases may vary.)

Good Luck.

We’re definitely not Tiger parents. Achievement is very casual. I don’t even like to keep score in sports. We make her do her homework, but we’re not demanding she be a math wiz or anything. She has a strong desire for perfection, but it’s self imposed. For example, we support her no matter how she does in her track meet, but she’ll be unconsolably crying if she thinks she didn’t do well.

This type of behavior is somewhat recent. Maybe within the past year or two. Probably at first I didn’t recognize the panic component and I would respond to the behavior as if it was just normal grousing about whatever (i.e. Why are in tears because we told you to clean up your room?) Now we recognize when she’s getting this way and we try to divert the emotions. But it can be difficult to figure out how to do the normal parent-child discipline without having the situation go so bad.

They aren’t exactly panic attacks. It’s not like she randomly feels panic for no reason. It’s always in response to something specific and short lived.

We actually do have an appointment setup for her in a few weeks with a professional. Hopefully that will help.

My neice started showing similar behavior about two years ago (she’s 15 now). In her case, she was tormented by thoughts that she had done something bad or “sinned” without realizing it, or that she would accidentaly do something bad or hurt someone by accident. Her parents took her to see a professional and now she gets therapy and medication and she is MUCH better. So by going to see a doctor you’re already taking an important step.

Puberty can do weird things to people; chances are she will grow out of it normally after a while but a professional can help her deal with her feelings in the meantime.

You might want to talk to her about coping strategies for this kind of situations. Some people pick those up on their own, some don’t. She may be the type who’d do better if explicitly told some strategies for coping.