What if someone told you that there was something that might help your child improve their focus in class, reduce anxiety and stress, better regulate their emotions, help them sleep easier and maybe even make them…..nicer? And that this “something” was in fact something your child already knows how to do. In fact, they’re doing it right now.
So, what is this miraculous-sounding something?
Breathing. Yup. Just breathing.
For most children (with the exception of children who suffer from breathing disorders or disease), breathing is something they probably do without even thinking about it. We all do, for the most part. But as noted above, practice is showing that teaching children a specific type of breathing can have a ton of positive effect on their well being.
“Belly Breathing” (or “diaphragmatic breathing”) is a type of deep breathing exercise that uses the entire capacity of the lungs. This is in contrast to the type of breathing many of us do which is “shallow breathing”, where only the upper chambers of the lungs are inflated (the chest area). In fact, our lungs extend down the entire length of the ribcage and when fully inflated, you can even feel them in the back of your rib cage, not just in the front of the body.
Note that belly breathing is more of a practice than a strategy. The important thing to remember is that daily practice (ideally twice a day for at least a few minutes) is essential to reap all the benefits that deep breathing has to offer. Because long periods of time are not necessarily required to do the practice (though you will be the best person to figure out how long your child individually needs to see benefits), it should not make a significant change in your family’s schedule. Like doing homework, eating, bathing, brushing teeth and sleeping, this calming exercise can become just one of those things your family “does” in the course of a day.
To teach your child belly breathing, choose an already calm or slower paced part of the day. Turn off all electronic devices (including cell phones); music is ok, as long as it is soft, slow and soothing. Also, try doing this practice with your child; not only will they benefit from you role modeling the behavior (probably the best way to get them interested) but it will serve as a bonding activity that you do together. Plus, you’ll get the benefits of deep breathing too!
Make sure your child feels comfortable. Older children can sit in a chair if they prefer and put one hand on their bellies, to feel the movement of their breath in and out (“Pay attention to your belly getting bigger when you breathe in and smaller when you breathe out, like a balloon”). Younger children seem to learn this activity best when lying down, preferably with a small stuffed animal or toy on their bellies, so they can “rock the baby to sleep” with their in and out breaths.
Count to four softly to your child while they slowly inhale, hold the breath for one second and then slowly exhale, again to a count of four. Remind them to feel their belly moving. Have them keep taking deep breaths until their body relaxes. If your child has trouble with taking such slow breaths to start, or is distracted by the counting, just direct them pay attention to slowing their breath down as much as they can. (Here is a websites that describes some strategies to help kids who would benefit from practicing deep breathing in different ways: http://www.lianalowenstein.com/articleProfDeepBreathing.pdf )
While no one is promising that this simple exercise can transform a child who is really struggling into one who has no struggles, it can be a smart piece of the broader plan to address those issues along, with healthy eating, plenty of exercise and helpful behavioral strategies. Children with serious behavioral problems, trauma and/or mental health issues may of course require further clinical interventions.
sources and further reading:
Powell, L., Gilchrist, M., & Stapley, J. (2008). A journey of self-discovery: an intervention involving massage, yoga and relaxation for children with emotional and behavioral difficulties attending primary schools. Emotional and Behavioral Difficulties, 13(3), 193-199.