The calming benefits of deep breathing for children and teens
We’ve all been there … angry, stressed, anxious, emotional or just having a bad moment (or day) and someone tells us to calm down and just take breathe … and in many cases it works! Let’s look at the science of why and how we can use this in our daily lives.
Breathing and Stress
Breathing is an automatic function of the body. When we feel under stress, our breathing patterns change as part of the ‘fight-or-flight response’. Typically, when under stress or when anxious we take small, shallow breaths using our upper chest rather than our diaphragm to move air in and out of our lungs. Shallow breathing (or hyperventilation), can increase or prolong feelings of anxiety by making the physical symptoms of stress worse.
Fortunately, we have the ability to control our breathing. Taking deep, deliberate breaths can calm a person physically and mentally. Learning to deep breathe can:
- Increase our body’s oxygen levels, lower our heart rate and reduce cortisol levels in our blood stream … all of which can have a calming effect
- Redirect/refocus our mind to a simple task, this can distract us from anxious thoughts
When we feel calmer and more relaxed, it can help us use good judgment and make better decisions, especially in stressful situations.
Learning to use Deep Breathing to Calm
If you have a child who experiences challenges with anxiety, stress, frustration or other life situations, then relaxation could be part of the way you help them manage. However, it is important to practice and teach this skill when your child is calm. By practicing when you and your child feels good, you can then be ready to use this skill in moments of stress or anxiety.
Some ideas on introducing:
Start small with a quick explanation of how deep breathing can help and why to do it. This could be saying things like:
- “Relaxing your body helps us because……….”
- “When we slow our breathing down…………..happens”
- “I like to try to slow my breathing down because……………….
Find a regular calm time of day to do a short one minute practice together. This is a great time to learn the skill without the stress of the situation. Some ideas might be:
- When driving in the car to/from school
- After getting home from school
- At the dinner table just before supper
- When it’s bedtime
Once deep breathing is part of your daily calm routine, you could try introducing it at unplanned times during the day when things are slightly escalated but not out of control. This might be:
- Stopping for a minute once you are ready to leave the house for a fun activity/outing – by having everyone pause and engage in a deep breathing activity when excited to participate and get going can be a positive way to practice calming and settling
- Pausing after a fun game or outdoor activity to do some deep breathing before coming inside for quieter activity
- When you might anticipate your child getting frustrated with a task (ie before homework, when engaging in a game where we need to learn to wait our turn or loose gracefully)
Once your child can use breathing during times of excitement or anticipated frustration, they will be more able to use this skill (initially with your help/guidance) when stressed or anxious.
Deep Breathing Scripts and Visuals
There are lots of different ways of teaching deep breathing to kids. Sometimes having a visual to support them can be helpful – some common techniques which you could “google-research” could include – finger breathing, star breathing, elevator breathing, dragon beathing, square breathing, bubble blowing etc etc. There are also lots of Apps available to assist. As you can see therefore lots of options to choose from … and I am sure that one or more will be right for your child/family.
Although there are different breathing techniques, they all involve shifting her breathing from upper chest breathing to abdominal/belly breathing. Some key things to consider with introducing abdominal breathing.
- Find a quiet, relaxed space where you won’t be disturbed
- Make sure that you are comfortable – you can choose to either sit or lie down
- Take notice of your breath and try to gently breathe in and out through your nose.
- Try and keep your upper chest and stomach still, allow your breath to fill your abdomen/belly
- Once you are breathing slowly, enjoy the sensation of being calm and relaxed.
Happy breathing …..
LEISHA WARD (Occupational Therapist).