If you’ve ever felt intense fear, you likely noticed your heart racing, body tensing, and breath speeding up. If you think back to the last time you felt excited, you probably remember a similar but subtler response. Changes in breathing are normal bodily responses, as breathing can affect your emotions. This is all true for your child as well.
During emotional experiences, the brain sends signals to the body on how to react. In response to stress, we go into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode. Sometimes, these automatic responses feel too overwhelming, inhibiting our ability to think or behave. But with some intentional breathing techniques, we can regulate strong emotions instead of being ruled by them. This is especially true for children.
Keep reading to learn how breathing affects emotions and what simple exercises you can do with your child to help them calm down.
Understanding Breath and the Nervous System
Did you know that the respiratory system directly affects the nervous system? This means that when a child experiences emotional stress or anxiety, one of the hormones, adrenaline, is secreted into their bloodstream. Heart rate and breathing speed up, telling your body to fight or flee the perceived danger. Accelerated breathing can amplify already intense emotions until the body feels safe enough to calm down on its own.
Because of the link between the respiratory and nervous systems, there are some interesting ways to help your child with breathing that are non-typical. These fun strategies can help your child regulate through either an activated or depressed nervous system state. Here are some ways to help your child find relief in fight, flight or freeze.
Co-Regulation Breathing Exercises for Kids and Families
Breathing relaxation techniques are an effective way to help your child calm down. Here are some fun and simple co-regulation breathing games that encourage self-soothing.
The Ribbon Dance
First, place a ribbon in your child’s hand. Tell them to make the ribbon flutter and dance without blowing it off of their hand. Challenge them to do this for as long as they can before taking in another breath.
To energize or wake up your child instead of calming them down, tell them to make the ribbon dance quickly with bursts of breath (rapid inhales and exhales).
Tissue Paper Balls
Crumple sheets of tissue paper into balls and place them on the floor. Have your child lie on their belly and blow the balls to the other side of the room. You can make it a competition with multiple kids, seeing who can blow the most balls across the room. This will help especially if your child feels pent-up, agitated, or bored.
Have your child sit or stand in a comfortable position, shoulders away from their ears; hands by their sides. Inhale, lift their arms over their head, forming the shape of a giant balloon with their arms. With arms reaching up, have them hold their breath and the balloon for a moment. Then, tell them to exhale slowly as they float their arms down to the starting position.
Bubble Gum Breaths
For younger kids, make breathing fun with this bubblegum breath exercise. Tell your child to pretend to chew a large piece of bubble gum, opening/closing their mouth and jaw wide while breathing normally. Have them purse their lips like they’re about to suck through a straw. Take a big inhale, preparing to blow a bubble.
Finally, have them cup their hands in front of their mouth to mimic a bubble forming, have them blow air all the way out as they extend their bubble. Tell them to Inhale again and then blow more air to make the bubble bigger. End the exercise by having them pop the bubble and either chewing again to repeat or throwing the gum away.
Breath can be used to energize the body and mind. To have your child practice power breathing, have them forcefully inhale through their nose while reaching their arms in the air, fingers spread wide. Then, tell them to forcefully exhale through their mouth as they swing their arms back down by their sides, with their hands in a fist. Repeat until they feel energized.
Using Your Breath to Calm Big Emotions
With inhale and exhale techniques, you can help your child bring awareness to their breath and navigate their emotions.
There are many types of breathing exercises, each for different purposes. Some increase energy and alertness while others calm the body down and still the mind. Breathing techniques that soothe the nervous system focus on steady inhales and long exhales.
Breathing through the belly— also known as diaphragmatic breathing— slows the heart rate and regulates blood pressure.
- Sit up tall or lay on your back. Place your hands or a comfortable object on your belly.
- As you breathe in, focus on your breath filling your belly. Feel it rise.
- As you exhale, feel your breath release as you watch the object go down the elevator.
Since people tend to naturally breathe through their chest, belly breathing is a great practice to try whenever you need to relax.
A “physiological sigh” happens naturally when we sleep, yawn, and sometimes when we cry. It delivers oxygen to a larger surface area of the lungs and releases lingering Co2.
- Take a normal inhale through your nose.
- Then continue to take another inhale through your nose, filling more air into your lungs.
- Sigh a long exhale through your mouth until you feel your lungs empty.
- Repeat 2-5 times, then return to normal breathing.
Remember: two inhales in; one long, full exhale out.
Helping Children Regulate Their Emotions
Breathing is an effective, easy way to help adults and children regulate strong emotions. If you want to help your child manage difficult feelings or behaviors, introducing these simple breathing exercises is a great place to start.
At BLOOM, we believe in the power of combining the physical with the emotional in behaviorial therapy to do more than just treat symptoms. Our mission is to support families and children everywhere, and meet them where they are. For more techniques to help your family manage unique behavioral challenges, the resources from the Bloom community can help. Click here to get started today.