Calm breathing with your kids
Parents, caregivers and the village that raise our little people need all the tools in their toolbox to manage big emotions. One of the best ‘tools’ for kids (and adults) is calm breathing.
This skill helps them focus in the moment on something within their body, and within their control – as opposed to the “the thing” (or things) that are making them sad, mad, or frustrated. It also helps them to slow down physically, stopping within a moment and acts as a ‘pause’ button for them to take a break from their thinking and emotions.
Calm breathing works by calming down our fight, flight, freeze response ( the sympathetic nervous system), and activating our rest and digest response (the parasympathetic nervous system) – you can learn more about that in our post The science behind calm breathing: a quick guide to the nervous system.
How often should I practice breathing with my child?
While there is no hard and fast rule, by taking some moments every day to practice we can start to build a habit, for ourselves and our kids. One of the best things about conscious breathing is that we can do it anywhere, at any time. Our breath is always with us. We can do it while we are in the bath, just before bed, in the car, or after breakfast – whenever works for you and your family. And if Brave and Able Breathing Buddies are there, well that helps too.
What are the benefits of calm breathing?
Some of the benefits include:
- Improved mental health
- Improved physical health
- Improved learning and performance
- Improved sleep
- Improvements in respiratory symptoms
Calm breathing with your kids
The most important factors to remember when teaching your kids to breathe calmly, is the acronym CALM (we do like to make it easy for you):
- C – create a safe space
- A – accept feelings that arise
- L – learn when calm
- M – make it fun
Let’s break it down in a bit more detail.
C - Create a safe place – we want to create a safe place for our kids to practice breathing – this might be a special place in the house, or backyard, or a physical item they connect to ‘calm’ – like a toy, or sensory activities. This might also be about creating a safe space mentally – when there is no time pressure, with or without parent assistance (depending on their preference).
A - Accept feelings that may arise – meaning you may need to be extra patient, accepting and expect a variety of feelings. Including resistance, boredom, frustration and anxiety around practicing breathing. Like all things, it takes practice and persistence. It’s okay for these emotions to arise, they do in adults too. Make space for them, normalise it and breathe through it.
L - Learn when calm – we cannot implement a new skill or coping mechanism, like calm breathing, when we in the middle of feeling big feelings (see our post Helping your child to navigate their emotions to learn more). We need to embed and practice these skills when we are calm and when we are capable of learning using our frontal, cognitive brain. This helps us feel more confident and comfortable in implementing it when we are struggling or challenged.
This means we need our kids to learn and regularly practice when we are calm – ideally every day, so that it is accessible and easy to implement when the big feelings come up. Once we have mastered it while we are calm – we can practice it when big emotions come up. As a bonus, research has shown that practicing deep, calm breathing regularly improves mental health and gives a sense of calm – meaning it acts as a preventer for big emotions to arise.
M - Make it fun! - Use imagination. Use toys they love. Bring a Brave or Able Breathing Buddy along and do it together. Ensure it’s something that they enjoy, not a punishment or something they do not want to do.
Some fun ways we can do that include being creative with breathing exercises, for example:
- Practice calm, slow breathing near flowers in the garden
- Have your child blow out the candles on a make-believe birthday cake, drawing a deep breath in and blowing it out strongly through the mouth
- Practice with bubbles – try and get them to blow big, slow bubbles – blowing out their breath soft and long
What is belly breathing?
You may have heard lots of terms for calm breathing - “belly breathing,” “diaphragmatic breathing,” and “deep breathing”, and you may wonder, is there a difference? Well, not really, they all refer to breathing practice where you take deep, slow and low breaths from our belly, or more technically, our diaphragm.
One of the most important things in calm, deep breathing is for your kids to understand the breath going into their belly, not just shallow in their chest. This is why belly breathing, or calm breathing is often called diaphragmatic breathing because when you take this deep breath, your diaphragm (the muscle at the top of your belly) contracts.
Ask your child to get comfortable, and place one hand on their belly and one hand on their chest. Let them take a deep breath in for four counts and then exhale slowly for four counts. Remind them to pay attention to the rise and fall of their chest and belly as they complete the exercise. Try and get them to focus on feeling their hand on their belly rising higher than the one on their chest. Imagining their belly is a balloon getting bigger and then deflating. You can also try this with a toy resting on their belly and getting them to watch the toy going up and down.
Implementing calm breathing with big emotions
It is hard to remember to use calm breathing when big feelings come up – partly because of how our brains navigate big emotions and partly because it’s not necessarily intuitive, for adults or for kids. Kids need our help to help them regulate. So how can we gently remind them?
- Get down on their level - give them eye contact and talk to them softly and calmly
- Model it yourself and explain what you are doing – e.g. “Mum’s feeling some big feelings at the moment, so I’m going to go and do some calm breaths”
- Help them find a safe place
- Offer to do it with them – and respect their choice either way
Ways we can practice
One of the best things about breathing is we can do it anywhere – we always have our breath! We can practice in the car, in our bed, or on a walk. Whenever we practice and build the skill of breathing, remember the CALM principles. There are so many different breathing exercises out there – and different ones work for different children and people, we’ll have some examples for you to try available here soon.
To wrap it up
We need to build the skill of calm breathing when we’re are calm so that we can use our conscious brain to learn, develop and master the skill. This means we need to practice it often – daily, and in a safe place where it’s unlikely to perceive or have any real threats. Practice it daily and after a while, you and your child will be able to use this skill when big waves of emotions hit.
Calm breathing is a great tool for helping our kids to regulate their emotions and improve their wellbeing. When practicing, we need to remember the CALM principles. There are many ways we can try to practice and it might take some time to work out what works best for you and your kids and family.
Written by Dr Lauren Moulds, Principal Psychologist, Big Little Steps Psychology for Brave and Able.