Another Simple Thing: Just Breathe!

A View from My Window: Reflections of the Executive Director

Note: This is the seventh in a series of simple things we can do to build a better world for kids. The reflections will eventually be adapted into a book.

Have you ever felt things spinning out of control? What do you do when you’re anxious or stressed?

We all have our moments. Children, too. But when kids are stressed, it’s rarely pretty. Anyone who’s witnessed a three-year-old’s temper tantrum will attest to that!

Like adults, kids need to feel at ease and in control. Surprisingly, one of the most effective ways you can help build their self-control is teaching them to breathe!

But isn’t breathing automatic? Well, yes—and no!

Turns out, when we’re stressed or anxious, our breathing changes. Instead of inhaling and exhaling naturally, we take shorter, quicker breaths—which may intensify panic and exacerbate whatever problem we’re facing. That goes for both kids and adults.

It sounds silly to suggest “teaching” children what would seem the most natural of human functions. But mindful breathing takes practice. Introducing children to the practice at an early age is one of the most precious gifts we can bestow.

The science is certainly compelling. According to experts, calm breathing:

• Slows the heart rate
• Reduces anxiety
• Relieves pain
• Increases blood flow
• Improves posture
• Detoxifies the body
• Cultivates inner wisdom and strength
• Enhances creativity

Calm, mindful breathing shifts a child’s mind-body state—enabling them to become more aware, gain control, and manage their feelings. Not surprisingly, it has the same effect on adults! And when we’re feeling more calm, aware and in control, we also tend to be more thoughtful and kind—a nice outcome for everyone!

Physiologically, deep breathing builds flexibility and resilience. As with any “exercise,” the more you practice, the more your lung capacity increases—enabling even deeper breathing! So, breath control offers both physical and social rewards.

Children who have been traumatized, have learning disabilities, get anxious easily, or suffer from other sensory issues are especially susceptible to behavioral meltdowns. Arguably, they stand to benefit most from mindful breathing techniques. Instead of reinforcing “fight or flight” reactions (the normal, sympathetic nervous system response to fearful or traumatic circumstances), calm breathing activates the child’s parasympathetic nervous system—minimizing defensiveness and helping them relax. Such mindful breathing integrates the body and mind—enabling humans to soothe and support (or energize) themselves in ways that are most appropriate to the circumstances. Bottom line: Teaching kids to be aware of their breath (and by extension their moods and feelings) can go a long way toward preventing disruptive behavior.

The ABC's

Conscious breathing is easy to learn, even for young children. To get started, try this three-step process:

• Breathe in slowly through the nose. It helps to count—one, two, three, four (higher for older kids).
• Hold your breath momentarily, then exhale slowly from the mouth (again, a four count helps).
• Wait a couple seconds, then repeat (ideally, 5-10 times).

Obviously, it’s best to introduce children to these techniques when they’re calm and relaxed. Once they’ve gotten the idea, it will be easier to assist them when they’re approaching a meltdown. The ideal would be to practice several times each day; all it takes is a minute or two each time. You can do it in the car, before or after meals, or during transitions between activities—whatever works best.

Sara Taggart is our Prevention, Education and Partnerships Manager. The mother of two teenagers, she’s a certified Hatha Yoga teacher. Before coming to Children’s Center, she taught mindfulness and social innovation to women and girls in Uganda and Rwanda.

“When I was in 3rd grade,” Sara recalls,

My teacher invited the class to the carpet to lie on our backs. In a soothing voice, she encouraged us to close our eyes and place our hands on our bellies. “Breathe in through your nose and notice how your hands rise and fall as your belly fills,” she said. I remember thinking this was the dumbest thing ever—until a few minutes later when I heard her softly calling my name. I had fallen asleep! 

I’d forgotten that until many years later, when I was with my then four-year-old son—who had never slept through the night. One evening, in the midst of a “moment” together, I felt about to implode. Suddenly, I said emphatically, “I need to lie down!” And down I went! Closing my eyes, hands on belly, I breathed in as if to save my life. My exhale sounded like a beached whale! I felt my body melt. Then my son flopped exuberantly on top of me and yelled, “Mommy, you sound funny!” I couldn’t help but laugh…and cry! The tension was broken and I decided to just give in. And while my son didn’t start sleeping through the night for nine more years, that incident launched a practice—and we had some really fun times belly breathing on the floor together after that!

Sara’s recollection captures the sometimes-accidental foundation for new, creative approaches to parenting. It also strongly reinforces the benefit of just breathing—together!

When you think about it, all of us need “time outs” for deep breathing each day. I encourage you to try it—both on your own and with your kids or grandkids. Someday, the kids will thank you. In the meantime, their teachers, coaches, and other adults who deal with them on a regular basis will certainly be grateful!