Recently, one of our client families experienced the sudden and tragic loss of a parent. During the service, one of the children started yelling and sobbing uncontrollably. She was panting and it was evident that she was overwhelmed and could not calm herself.
Well intentioned family members tried to help her calm down with various approaches like talking to her, fanning her, putting ice on her head, hugging her, but it only made the situation worse. It was not until her mother calmly said, “Take a deep breath, just like we practiced. Breath in all the way down to your belly, then breathe all the way out.” In less than a minute, the young girl relaxed and began to regain her composure.
Deep breathing is a quick and easy tool you and your child can use anytime, anywhere, it teaches your child to slow down their breathing when they are feeling stressed or anxious. When we are really anxious, we take short, quick, shallow breaths leading to over-breathing, also known as hyperventilating. Over-breathing increases the physical symptoms associated with a panic attack, which in turn elevates anxiety and fear. Deep breathing, on the other hand, decreases these physical symptoms and reduces anxious feelings and worried thoughts. As the pace of breathing slows, the physical changes allow your child to feel better and able to cope with what is happening.
Here’s how to explain deep breathing to your child - before they need it! Find a good time when your child will be receptive to spending 5-10 minutes practicing breathing together in a quiet place where you will not be disturbed. It should be somewhere warm and comfortable such as a living room or your child’s bedroom.
Talk to you child about what happens when we get anxious and why breathing might be helpful. You might say it this way, “When we feel worried about stuff, it’s normal for our breathing to speed up. When it does, it can make us feel uncomfortable in our bodies, which makes us feel even more anxious! Our job is to learn how to slow down our breathing so we can feel calm again. So, let’s begin. Let’s sit or lie down in a comfortable spot and close our eyes.
I’m going to teach you how to do deep breathing. I want you to listen to my voice and do what I say. It’s okay if you don’t get it at first, just try.”
“Imagine you have a red balloon attached to the end of a long straw that reaches from your mouth and goes all the way to your belly. Place your hand over your belly button and feel how the balloon inflates and deflates as your belly goes up and down as you breathe. Kinda cool huh?
Now, close your eyes and keep your hand on your belly, and let’s begin. Take a slow, deep breath of air in through your nose as you count in your head
1, 2, 3, and then pause and hold it for the count of 1, 2, 3. Then slowly breathe out making your lips into a circle as if you are blowing out candles on the count of 1, 2, 3. Keep imagining the red balloon getting bigger as you inhale and smaller as you exhale. Take a slow, deep breath of air in through your nose counting in your head 1, 2, 3, and then pause and hold it for the count of 1, 2, 3. Then breathe out 1, 2, 3.”
To enhance the fun factor you can try using bubbles during the exercise. This can be a great way for children to learn how to slow down their breathing, since the deeper and slower you breathe when you blow the bubble wand, the more bubbles you will produce!
Or, you can have your child place a stuffed animal on their belly and have them lie on their bed. As your child breathes in and out, the stuffed animal should rise and fall in rhythm with their inhalation and exhalation.
For older children you can also add the option of using words on the inhalation and exhalation. For example, using the word “calm” on the in breath, and “body” on the out breath. These words can be used instead of counting 1, 2, 3.
You might also make a recording for your child. You can record your own voice using the record option on your smart phone or computer. Or you can download something from the internet. This way your child can use the recording when you are not available to help them.
• When belly/deep breathing, make sure your child’s shoulders and chest
are fairly relaxed and still. Only the belly should be moving.
• Practice together at least twice a day, doing 10 calm breaths in a row,
to help your child become comfortable with this skill.
• Once your child is comfortable with this technique, they can start using it in situations that cause anxiety. At first you may need to remind your child, but over time they will remember that using calm breathing is a fast and easy way to reduce the physical side effects of worry. This helps kids tolerate anxiety and cope with stress in a calm and mindful way.