The world can easily be overwhelming for a child. Teaching them to breathe thoughtfully is one of the most helpful things we can do to help them manage powerful emotional experiences. I think a lot of us know this- or at least have heard it mentioned. However, the way breathing has historically been taught or used in crises tends to not work. Here is why we should teach our kids to breathe and how to do it in a way that does work!
When is the last time you can remember being told to breathe in the midst of an intense moment and feeling as though the advice was well received and helpful? For most of us the answer is never. The problem here isn’t the breathing- it is the timing and the way that we are using the skill.
The more distressed we get, the less likely we are to be able to use strategies that are novel, or new, to us. Think about it. On days where you feel run down and exhausted what are the things you turn to? Likely the same blanket, TV show and brand of chips you have turned to in the past. If you just started jogging or bought a new yoga app you are excited to crack into, it is unlikely these will be the strategies first turned to in the midst of a freak out.
In order for a calming strategy to be meaningful in moments of distress it has to become familiar and safe within the brain. When distressed our brain favours familiar paths to new ones. So if we want breathing to be a meaningful strategy for our children when they are loosing it, we have to make it a practiced strategy when they are calm. This doesn’t need to be boring or a lot of work- there are some fun ways to help children learn to breathe that are simple, brief and easy to use.
Before we talk about how- let's start with the why. Kids freak out due to nervous system arousal steered by the Limbic system in the brain. This system is designed to keep us safe. When kids freak out their body and brains change how they work to prepare them to fight, flight or freeze. Typically a freeze response is brief and most kids oscillate between trying to escape the stressor (flight) and anger and aggression when they can’t (fight).
To fuel this response the body needs hormones like cortisol to be released and blood to shift and fuel the muscles. This starts with rapid shallow breathing and an elevated heart rate. By consciously slowing our breathing we can head this response off, minimize the impact of the response, or help the body work through these physiological shifts quicker. Breathing also gives a child something to focus on away from the stressor. Children’s brains are particularly prone to getting stuck in a moment with more intensity and less planning than an adults brain.
For any new skill to be meaningful you have to practice it regularly. The brain is like a field of tall grass and only the pathways walked will remain accessible and easily travelled. For most families I recommend practicing breathing at least twice a day for at least three weeks in order for it to become more habitual and learned. I tell then that two great times to practice breathing are once a child is home from school and then again at bedtime. Practice at these times, if the child is not overwhelmed, will help them reset their nervous system before moving on to family activities or sleep- both things better enjoyed whilst not freaking out.
Here is an easy way to teach your child, and yourself, to breathe in a meaningful way. Take a moment and practice it with your child. You have the same nervous system as them and training your body to breathe this way will help you also. Further, children’s nervous systems mirror caregiver's systems and by learning to do this well ourselves we can also influence their ability to do it.
Have your child place one hand on their stomach and one hand on their chest. Ask them to breathe deeply. Pay attention to the movement of the hands with the breathe. For most kids you will notice an exaggerated motion in the chest when they first start breathing mindfully. Ask them to see if they can try to breathe in a way that moves the hand on their stomach out as they breathe in and keep the hand on their chest still. The goal is to have children breathe deeply to the bottom of their diaphragm- at the very bottom of their belly.
Once you see that the hand on the belly is moving out as they breathe in. Ask them to focus on their breathing and try to breathe in for a count of four, hold their breathe for a count of four and breathe out for a count of five. Guide them through this slowly and calmly; counting to four as they breathe in, counting to four as they hold the breathe, and counting to five as they exhale it slowly through their mouth. As they get better at this, it can become a really meaningful foundation for mindfulness practice, sports psychology, or justifying the high priced aluminum water bottle you bought that says “breathe” in a scrolling, pseudo-spiritual font along with other enlightened sounding affirmations.
For really small children I have had them lay on their backs on the floor and place a stuffed animal on their stomach and another on their chest. I tell them that it is important to try to fill our bellies up like a balloon when we breathe and to practice trying to give the stuffed animal on their stomach a ride and let the one on their chest sleep. I find most young children can do this- though it often takes a lot more practice than they think initially.
Once children learn to breathe- you can slowly start bringing this skill into their moments of emotional dysregualtion. Start with a minor freak out- or preferably a pre-freak out moment you have caught before it slipped over the edge. Remember, the brain works differently when hyper-aroused and just because they know this skill when calm, it will still be a struggle to bring it into their arsenal of tools when things heat up. It takes practice and begins by learning the skill when calm and doing it a whole lot.