Stressed kids? Tell them to just breathe
Techniques can relax and calm the anxious young and old alike
To relax during a hectic time, adults will tell themselves to just breathe.
And the same idea works for children, says Sick Kids Anxiety Disorders team member Sandra Mendlowtiz.
“When children are anxious they will complain of stomach aches, usually on a Sunday night, which is what?” asks Mendlowitz. “The day before school.”
A technique, called abdominal breathing can help your child deal with school stress, like giving a speech in front of classmates, and can be used in other high-emotion situations, she says.
While keeping the chest and shoulders still you inhale through the nostrils and notice the lower abdomen expanding. After holding the breath for a few seconds, release through the mouth and feel the abdomen fall, says Mendlowitz.
“It’s a fuller, more complete breath,” she says. “It’s not halted. Breathing through your chest is halted,” adding that chest breathing worsens anxiety.
Certified yoga instructor and founder of YogaBuds studio Temmi Ungerman Sears calls this kind of breath, which she refers to as the Ujjayi breath, can be used as a calming tool.
“It’s learning that they have an inner locus to know they have control when things go out of control,” she says.
Ungerman Sears, who claims to have pioneered children’s yoga in Canada, teaches classes that help young people become aware of the here and now.
“When a child is guided, they’re in the present moment and not in that scary place they’ve been in before,” she says.
Deep breathing lets go of the body’s physical tension say both experts.
“It helps to calm the nervous system,” Ungerman Sears says. “It can kick-start the relaxation response, which lowers body temperature, blood pressure and slows the heart rate.”
She suggests placing a pillow on your child’s belly and telling them to pay attention to the rise and fall.
“If you practise it when you’re calm, you’ll begin to do it automatically,” Mendlowitz says.
She also says abdominal breathing is often confused with diaphragmatic breathing, which is a different technique.
Mendlowitz says deep breathing is something that works for people of all ages.
“Everybody should know how to do deep breathing,” she says.
She encourages parents to practise abdominal breathing with their children and to set an example of the proper way to breathe.
“We suggest that you practise the technique together and model the appropriate breathing technique so your kids will pick up on it,” she says. “Doing it at night lets your children know things are winding down.”
Mendlowitz notes that when kids take deep breaths they follow what others do most often, which is lifting the entire upper body and filling the lungs with an exaggerated inhale.
She says filling the lungs actually constricts your breathing.
“It’s hard to imagine taking a breath without moving your shoulders,” she says. “When you breathe through your abdomen, it feels tighter because you’re not used to [it].”
Ungerman Sears says she sometimes puts a rose petal on the foreheads of the children in her classes or gives them a piece of chocolate as a point of focus to help bring them into the present moment.
“A breathing technique is a tool used in mindfulness practise, which is about being aware and grounded,” she says.
Mendlowitz says, in her experience working with children who have anxiety disorders, deep breathing has been the mainstay of helping them keep calm.
“Ninety percent of kids say breathing is the most helpful tool we’ve taught them,” she says.
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