Teaching Your Child Calm Breathing

What is “calm breathing”?

Calm breathing is a technique that teaches your child to slow down his or her breathing when feeling stressed or anxious.

When we are anxious, we tend to take short, quick, shallow breaths or even hyperventilate. This type of anxious breathing can make anxiety even worse. Doing calm breathing can help lower your child’s anxiety and give him or her a sense of control… And of course, it’s something that your child can do by themselves when you’re not around to help and support them. It really is a ‘portable’ tool and no one knows that you’re doing it. This is often very important for children and young people because they don’t want to be seen as different or needing special help in any way.

How to help your child master the technique

  • Explain why calm breathing is a good ‘trick’ to learn. You can explain, for example, that taking short quick breaths actually increases other feelings of anxiety (e.g. heart racing, dizziness, or headaches)… and conversely, slow breathing helps to automatically calm you down.

  • Teach the calm breathing technique: take a slow breath in through the nose - for about 4 seconds -, and hold your breath for 1 or 2 seconds. Then, exhale slowly through the mouth - over about 4 seconds - and wait 2-3 seconds before taking another breath - 5-7 seconds for teenagers. Repeat for at least 5 to 10 breaths.

  • ‘Bubble blowing’ is a great way to practice and it’s fun. You have to take a slow, deep breath to make a big bubble and you have to blow the bubble really slowly or it will pop. Practise doing that with your child. Take a slow, deep breath in, hold it for a second and then slowly blow some bubbles. The challenge being to make the bubbles as big as possible – that takes control!

  • For older children and teens: since calm breathing involves taking slow, controlled breaths from the diaphragm, another way to explain this technique is to present it as “belly breathing”. The steps for this exercise are as follows: inhale slowly for 4 seconds through the nose. Ask your child to pretend that he or she is blowing up a balloon in the belly, so your child’s belly should inflate when inhaling. Wait 2 seconds, and then slowly exhale through the mouth. Ask your child to pretend that he or she is emptying the balloon of air so the tummy should deflate. Wait 2 seconds, and then repeat. Helpful hint: when belly breathing, make sure your child’s upper body - shoulders and chest area - is fairly relaxed and still. Only the belly should be moving. Then, practice, practice, practice! In order for your child to be able to use this new tool effectively, he or she first needs to be an expert at calm breathing.

Rules of practice

  • Practice a couple of times a day, doing 10 calm breaths in a row.
  • Practice when you’re both feeling relaxed, if you’re doing it together.
  • Once your child is really comfortable with the technique, they can start to use it in more anxious or stressful situations.

It’s a skill and it needs to be learned and practiced if it is going to be useful!