Help your child calm their body with belly breathing
Have you tried breathing exercises with your child before? Or told your child to “take a deep breath” or “just breathe”? Do they tell you it doesn’t work? If you haven’t had much success teaching breathing exercises to your child, it is possible that they are doing it wrong. Don’t worry though – that happens a lot (it’s actually a little trickier than it seems!). I am going to help teach you and your child the right way to do belly breathing. Read on for some science on why deep breathing works, step-by-step instructions, and a video demonstration.
If your child has anxiety or struggles with managing their anger and other big feelings, belly breathing (also called deep breathing or diaphragmatic breathing) may be one of the most important coping tools you can teach them to help them soothe their body and keep it from spiraling out of control when they are upset. If you’ve ever tried meditation or done yoga, then you’ll notice that deep breathing is an important part of most forms of relaxation. Therefore, it’s really important to learn how to do it the right way.
When your child is scared, panicky, or angry, have you noticed they start breathing faster and faster until they are nearly hyperventilating? And the harder they try to breathe, the worse they feel? In fact, they might complain to you that they feel like they can’t breathe. It’s not that they actually aren’t getting enough air (if they are able to talk, they are able to breath!), but rather the fast breathing causes carbon dioxide to be exhaled too quickly. This in turn results in too much oxygen in the lungs, which causes a carbon dioxide–oxygen imbalance in the bloodstream. This imbalance creates a lot of other really uncomfortable body sensations that don’t feel so great.
For example, the drop in carbon dioxide in your child’s bloodstream might cause them to feel lightheaded or dizzy, experience chest pain, tingling or numbness in the hands or feet, or for their heartbeat to speed up. These unpleasant body sensations might make your child feel frightened about what’s happening to them, which can cause them to breathe even faster. It’s important to know, though, that anxiety-induced hyperventilation is not dangerous. It won’t hurt your child (but it does feel bad).
Perhaps – without even knowing all of the above – your motherly or fatherly intuition has led to you to advise your child to take a few deep breaths when they get upset. However, taking a deep breath might not do them much good without this important and often missing step: exhaling. That might seem pretty obvious to you, but when your child is scared or upset, it isn’t obvious to them! In reality, kids often take a deep gasping breath IN but forget about the deep breath OUT. They may either hold their breath or do a big fast huff. A good motto is “To take a breath, you have to give a breath.” That’s why every deep breathing exercise should start with a Long. Slow. Exhale.
When I teach deep breathing in my office, I have kids put one hand on their chest and the other hand on their belly. Then I have them pretend they just finished running a race and pant as fast as they can. For this little demonstration, only the hand on their chest should move and it should move rapidly up and down. When you breathe quickly in this shallow manner, you get plenty of life-sustaining air, but you also get some really unpleasant body sensations that can fuel your panic. This is what we don’t want. The goal of deep breathing is to slow the breath down and breathe deeply into your belly to correct that carbon dioxide-oxygen imbalance.
I’ll walk you through the steps below. But first, for younger kids, it is helpful to show them where to put their hands by demonstrating the technique yourself. Don’t assume that all kids will know what a breastbone is (my 6-year-old pointed to his hip when I asked!). You may also say “in-breath” and “out-breath” instead of “inhale” and “exhale.” Sometimes it can help to use imagery by suggesting your child pretend they are blowing bubbles or making a dandelion wish. Just use words that your child understands.
Belly Breathing Exercise
- Get into a comfortable position sitting in a chair or laying on your back. If you wish, gently close your eyes so you can concentrate your attention on your breathing.
- Place one hand on your chest above the breastbone and the other hand on your stomach over your belly button.
- Open your mouth slightly and gently sigh like someone just did something really annoying. As you sigh, let your shoulders and upper body relax down away from your ears.
- Close your mouth and pause for a few seconds.
- *Keeping your mouth closed, inhale slowly through your nose by pushing your stomach out (the out motion of your stomach helps to pull the air into your lungs). The hand on your stomach should rise as your belly fills with air like a balloon inflating while the hand on your chest stays still. When you’ve breathed in as much air as you possibly can, the inhale is finished.
- Pause briefly while holding the breath. Three or so seconds should do. Everybody has different size lungs and counts at different rates so just hold the breath for the amount of time that feels comfortable for you.
- Open your mouth and exhale slowly by pulling your belly in. Keep exhaling until all the air is pushed out of your belly and it is as flat as it can be.
- Repeat from the * for as long as you like or until you feel calm.
Here is a video which explains and demonstrates the belly breathing exercise I’ve just described.
So now that you know the right way to do belly breathing, are you ready to give it a try with your child? I have a few more quick pointers for you before you start. Pick a time when you are both already calm and relaxed, and then invite them to practice the breathing exercise together for a few minutes. You might say something like:
“Earlier you said that when you feel upset, your heart speeds up and you breathe faster. I would like to show you something you can do to prevent your body from spiraling out of control and help you to feel really calm instead. Watch me. I’m going to do a special kind of deep breathing that really helps me calm myself down. It’s called belly breathing. And then, if you like, we can try it together.”
As you practice together, pay close attention to the movement of your child’s chest and stomach. Remember, their chest should stay still and the stomach should move in and out. If you see movement at their chest, head, or shoulders, just go back to Step 1 and have them practice getting the right motion in their stomach before adding the slow breathing in. It may feel awkward to them at first, but that’s probably because belly breathing is different to their usual way of chest breathing. And it takes some practice until it starts to feel natural. Make sure to let them know they are doing a great job so they stay motivated. Stickers or a star chart can help. Also, you can ask them how they feel after a few minutes of deep breathing. Most kids feel more relaxed and this, in and of itself, is naturally motivating.
How often should you practice with your child? I encourage my clients to make belly breathing a daily habit. You only need to practice for 1-2 minutes at a time, but it will help you make it a habit faster if you repeat it throughout the day. You can either practice with your child at the top of every hour you are together or pick a frequently occurring event like a cat meowing, door slamming, or text notification chiming. You and your child can write post-it notes and stick them around the house. Or set an alarm on your cell phone to remind you it’s time to practice. Whichever way you pick to remember, make sure to give your child lots of praise and positive encouragement for practicing belly breathing. After two weeks of daily practice, I guarantee you and your child will find it much easier to do and will be ready to use belly breathing to calm down when upset.
If you decide to give belly breathing a try, let me know how it goes!