“Take a deep breath”. How often have we heard this directive when we are worked up or anxious? Many of us can agree that the answer is “often.“ But why? How does it help? Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the rest and digest process in the body. Control of the breath activates the parasympathetic system which activates the resting processes in the body. This allows the body to begin to come into a state of calm. Because of this, deep breathing is effective in assisting emotional regulation. This is true for all ages. Teaching children how to utilize their breath to regulate their emotions and body sensations promotes a lifelong skill.
Below are some of my favorite breathing techniques to teach children. They are simple, fun, and effective.
Have the child sit in a comfortable position. Ask the child to hold out their left out and imagine that they are holding a flower. Then ask them to hold out their right hand and imagine they are holding a candle. Prompt the child to smell the flower deeply through their nose, naming the act as an inhale. Then ask them to blow out the candle slowly, explaining that this is an exhale. Continue for about a minute at a time. This technique works really well when teaching basic breathing to very young children.
Have the child lay down on their back and put a stuffed animal on their belly. Ask the child to breathe in slowly and have them notice the stuffed animal as it moves up. Then have the child breathe out slowly and bring the stuffed animal back down. This helps teach kids to use their belly to take deep breaths.
Start by asking the child to stand with their feet wide apart and their arms dangling in front of their body like an elephant’s trunk. Instruct the child to breathe in deeply through the nose and raise their arms up high above their head. Then instruct the child to slowly swing their arms down again as they breathe out through their mouth. Moving the trunk of the elephant up and down as they breathe.
Have the child sit in a comfortable position. Provide the following directions: Breathe in through your nose, then slowly and smoothly breathe out with a hissing sound for as long as you can. Repeat for 5-8 rounds as needed. I also challenge children to be “sneaky” snakes by making the noise as quietly as possible.
Back to back breathing
Have the child sit back to back with yourself or another child. Provide the following instructions: Sit tall and close your eyes. Decide who would like to start. The person who starts begin to inhale deeply and then exhale slowly. They continue to breathe slow and deep. Their partner should feel the expansion in their partner’s back each time they breathe in. The partner should then try to match their own breathing to their partners. The goal is to begin sync the breathes. Once breathing is in sync have partners switch roles.
This exercise can be done with either a square drawn on paper, a block, or using an imaginary square that is drawn in the air. Provide the following prompts: Start at the bottom right of the square- tracing with your finger. Breathe in for 4 counts as you trace the first side of the square. Hold your breath for 4 counts as you trace the second side of the square. Breathe out for 4 counts as you trace the third side of the square. Hold your breath for 4 counts as you trace the final side of the square. Continue as needed.
Start by having the child find a comfortable position whether sitting or standing. Provide the following instructions: Softly exhale releasing all the air out of your lungs. Slowly inhale to a count of 3, hold, then exhale for a count of 3. Inhale to a count of 4, hold, then exhale for a count of 4. Inhale to a count of 5, hold, then exhale for a count of 5. Continue to a number count that is comfortable for the child. For older children you can encourage them to also “walk back down the stairs” once they have come to a number count that is comfortable. For example, if the comfortable number count is 6 then, have the child inhale to a count of 5, hold, then exhale for a count of 5. Inhale to a count of 4, hold, then exhale for a count of 4. Inhale to a count of 3, hold, then exhale for a count of 3, and so on.