No child is born knowing how to self-soothe and calm down when upset. As they grow, kids learn to calm down through being soothed by their caregivers, watching the example of others, and discovering what works for them. However, for many children (and adults) calming down when upset continues to be a difficult skill to master.
This lack of mastery shows up in angry kids with explosive tempers, anxious children who can’t seem to face their fears or calm their racing thoughts, and impulsive or hyper kids who can’t seem to settle down.
Fortunately, there are many strategies and tools that kids can learn in order to better relax.
This is the first in a series of posts to help parents, teachers, and others learn some of these strategies to pass them on to kids that need them.
Strategy #1 – Balloon Breathing (or Belly Breathing)
Slow, deep breaths are one of the best ways to calm an anxious child.
An anxious or angry child is in flight-or-fight mode with their body primed to handle a perceived threat. This usually leads to fast, shallow breathing, rapid heartbeat, and tense muscles. Practicing slow, deep breathing tells your body that it can calm down, and as the physical arousal decreases, the emotional feeling of anxiety or anger will too.
Here’s a sample of how I talk to kids about deep breathing for relaxation:
“When we get scared or worried or angry, we usually take quick shallow breaths that stay at the top of our chest. (I put my hand on the top of my chest to give a focal point and demonstrate what this looks like.) When we want to calm down, we need to take slow belly breaths instead. Imagine that there is a balloon in your belly. When you breathe in, you want to push all the air down and fill up the balloon so that your belly puffs out. (I put my hand on my belly and demonstrate this.) Then, you breathe out slowly and your belly gets smaller as the balloon deflates.”
Sometimes it’s easier to practice belly breaths if you lay down. I’ll have the child lay on the couch and we’ll put a small stuffed animal (or balloon) on their stomach. I’ll remind them that when they breathe in, the stuffed animal should rise, and when they breathe out, it should go down. We’ll practice this until they seem to understand how to do the belly breaths.
After they understand the belly breathing, I’ll help them slow down the breathing like this:
“To keep our breathing slow, we’ll try to count to four as we breathe in and to four as we breathe out. Let’s practice and do five slow breaths together; I’ll count as we go. Try to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. As you breathe out, purse your lips like you’re blowing bubbles. Put one hand on your stomach to remind yourself to focus on filling up your belly when you breathe in. In – 2 – 3 – 4. Out – 2 – 3 – 4…”
It can also be helpful when you demonstrate to put one hand on your own belly and then hold out the other hand, raising it as you inhale and lowering it as you exhale. This extra visual cue helps kids with the slow timing of the breaths. (Remember, you are counting to four, not counting four seconds, which would be too difficult for many kids.)
Practice belly breathing a few times a day to help your child get comfortable with doing it. Right before bed is a great time to do one of these practices since it can help your child relax for sleep. It’s incredibly difficult to use a new skill when you’re already upset, so you should practice several times when your child is already calm before expecting them to be able to do it when they are upset. And be sure to do the slow belly breathing with your child as you practice and when you are prompting them to use it to calm down – modeling the technique is essential to helping kids learn to use it.
Remember that belly breathing is great for adults too! Try to practice this skill for yourself by doing a few calming breaths throughout the day to release tension or to help you stay calm in your interactions with your child.
Here’s a visual tool to help you and your child practice keeping the slow four count as you breathe:
Want a printable tip sheet? Click here and enter your email to get a printable quick guide to belly breathing for kids.
Be sure to sign-up for the email list or check back later as I will be adding more calming strategies soon. All email subscribers will get the latest tips delivered straight to their inbox.
Does your child need some extra help in managing anxiety or other overwhelming emotions? Call or email me today to schedule an appointment and get help.
For parents: Freeing Your Child from Anxiety (by Tamar E. Chansky)
For kids: A Boy and A Bear: The Children’s Relaxation Book (by Lori Lite)
What to do When You Worry Too Much (by Dawn Huebner)