Breathing as a coping strategy: you either love it or hate it. If you love it, it’s probably because you’ve seen how well it works to calm an anxious or angry child. If you hate it, well, it’s probably because it’s hard to get an anxious or angry child to do it. But it’s worth persisting in your efforts to teach your child intentional breathing. Here’s why:
Breathing slowly and deeply calms the brain. It sends a message to the amygdala (the part of your brain always on the lookout for danger) to stand down. Breathing quiets internal alarm bells and returns children to more logical thinking. But most kids find intentional breathing boring, and at the start, it doesn’t feel like anything is happening, which is why children resist.
To get breathing to work, and to increase the chance of your child cooperating when you suggest it, it helps to talk about it ahead of time. Explain that the brain is like a closed fist, with a special part tucked deep inside. When that part – the amygdala – senses danger, it sets off an alarm that makes your brain go from closed-fist to – BOING – open hand. That’s a problem because the part represented by your fingers (that were curled down tight when your hand was fisted) is the part where thinking happens. When the amygdala sounds its alarm, the thinking part of your brain is no longer there to help you. Breathing slowly and deeply brings it back.
The most important thing about breathing to help your child calm down from “big feelings” is to practice ahead of time. The second most important thing is to find a method that engages your child (so they are willing to practice). Here are 3 favorites:
- Five-finger breaths. Have your child hold up their left hand, palm facing in, fingers spread. Ask them to use their right pointer to trace their left hand, starting beneath their pinkie. Breathe in (through the nose) on the upslopes and out (through the nose or mouth) on the downs, for a total of 5 breaths (one for each finger). Encourage your child to trace slowly and to sync their breaths to the ups and downs.
- Hot chocolate breaths. Ask your child to imagine holding a mug of hot chocolate. Have them bring the (pretend) mug up to their nose and take a long, deep sniff – a prolonged breath in through the nose – imagining the delicious chocolatey smell. Then have them purse their lips to send a cooling breath across the surface of the mug – long and slow out through the mouth. Repeat 3 times, smelling and cooling, smelling and cooling.
- Ocean breaths. Have your child lie down with a small stuffed animal balanced on their stomach. Take the animal for a ride – like a raft bobbing in the waves. When your child breathes in, the raft (and animal) will rise. When your child breathes out, it will fall. Challenge your child to take the animal for a ride without having it tumble into the ocean.
Practice breathing every day. Just two or three minutes is enough. Then, when anxiety or anger or another big feeling hits, coach your child to take a few breaths. Do this before responding to the content of whatever you child is upset about. Remain empathic but firm, “I can see how strongly you feel about this. Let’s take some of those special breaths to get your thinking brain back and then we can talk about it.” Start breathing yourself, even if your child doesn’t immediately follow along. We all have mirror neurons that pick up on, and ultimately match, the emotional tenor around us. Your calm signals safety and brings down the emotional temperature in the room. Breathing will also help you respond more intentionally to your child. It’s a win-win. So, just breathe.