What we all wonder in the middle of a meltdown…
How do you calm your kids down?
How do you calm your kids down faster?
And, once we’ve survived the moment, potentially this one:
How do you teach your kids how to calm themselves down?
One big tip (and the focus of this post): Help your child learn how to breathe intentionally, using the breath to help calm big feelings.
What can parents and caregivers do to help kids manage big feelings?
There are a lot of tactics worth trying, and not all will work for every kid. I've mentioned several in this blog post (such as reading stories about feelings, using play to navigate, and having dance parties), and I hope you'll read and try whatever seems like a fit for your child and your family!
In this post, I want to dig a little deeper into how breathing can help kids calm down. So read on for details on why it works and how you can help teach your kids in a fun way!
Why kids have big feelings
Humans experience life through a combination of emotional and logical responses. Babies primarily respond emotionally, as they haven't learned how to process logically yet – their brains aren’t quite ready for that. That happens over time through learning and development.
In our brains, we have an upper and lower part (sometimes referred to as the upstairs and downstairs brain). The upper part is responsible for logic, the thinking part of the brain. The lower part is responsible for reacting (“fight or flight”), the feeling part of the brain. When we use only the lower part, we live in constant “fight or flight” mode, which isn’t how our brains are designed to function optimally. But think about what that might feel like for a kid, who is using the feeling part of the brain more than the thinking part of the brain…if every feeling sends you into “fight or flight” mode…would you feel overwhelmed too?
Another reason kids are thrown into “fight or flight” mode with their feelings is that they've often never experienced these feelings before. At one point or another, every emotion is new. Even a known emotion might feel different in a new scenario. For example, if you've lost a loved one or pet, you likely felt sad (among other emotions). You may also feel sad when you don't get a job you've been interviewing for. But those feelings of sadness may not feel the same, and the tools you learned to deal with one may not seem super applicable (at least on the surface) for the other. Kids are going through this all the time. When everything is new, it feels overwhelming, surprising, and scary. All of these feelings can pile on top of each other when things are new and uncertain.
So we have to teach kids how to integrate their upper and lower brain so that they don’t always live in a reactive state. Over time, as they grow and practice integrating the two parts, they begin to use more logical thought, which will help them when they encounter new feelings and situations. We don’t want them to lose touch with their feelings, just gain the ability to see the feelings logically when that’s helpful. I think adults can even have a tendency to use too much logical processing, in lieu of checking in with emotions, so I really want to be sure I am clear in saying that we are not trying to get rid of feelings! We just want to learn how to use them to benefit us, rather than harm us. Both thinking and feeling are necessary and important!
There are different methods for integrating the two parts of the brain, which is outside the scope of this post (maybe I’ll save this idea for a future post!), but I highly recommend The Whole Brain Child by Tina Bryson and Dan Siegel. They explain the brain in detail with many tactics for integration and examples by child age group. Please note: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
I bring all of this up in this post because breathing intentionally is one way to help the two parts of the brain integrate. So when you teach your kids about breathing, and they learn it as a skill to use when they encounter big feelings, they are integrating their brain and making their way towards positive mental health.
The power of breathing
Breathing seems natural, and while it happens automatically, that doesn't mean it's automatically giving you all the benefits that it's capable of giving you. Automatic breathing gives you oxygen to distribute throughout your body, and that's good and necessary! What your breath can also do is manage your stress response so you get out of "fight or flight" mode and into a more rational, decision-making space.
The breath and the vagus nerve
Intentional breathing stimulates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is located at the base of your skull, at the top of your spine. It is responsible for dispersing all sorts of information to the rest of your body, including messages between your brain, heart, and digestive system. Stimulating this nerve helps you tap into the parasympathetic nervous system (which manages your stress response) and move out of "fight or flight" mode (which is an unhealthy state to be in for a long time). The vagus nerve is stimulated by singing, shouting, talking, and even, yes you guessed it, breathing (especially audible "ha" breaths). So when you or your child are experiencing stress or big feelings, you can do one of these things to stimulate that nerve and start to feel some relief. Pretty cool how you can influence your body and its responses, right?!
How to teach your kids about breathing and managing emotions
So now we know why they have big feelings and how breathing can help, but simply telling kids this might not solve all challenges ;) I've found a few things to be helpful for teaching your kids about breathing in an effort to help them learn to calm down, initially with your help and long-term on their own.
Practice in calm moments, and practice repeatedly. Lots of repetitions will help train, so they'll be more prepared when big feelings arise. I teach lots of breathing tactics in my Kids Yoga classes! It's a fun way to teach kids about breathing without them even realizing they are learning tools for life's difficult moments.
Be consistent and intentional. Once you have practiced in calm times, now it’s time to be consistent during meltdowns. Whenever one happens, however small or big, come back to what you’ve practiced. Even if your kid doesn’t seem to be paying attention, some of it will sink in. You can modify a bit on the fly and still see success. There was a time I described in this video where a breathing tactic we’d practiced didn’t quite work in the intense situation like it did in the calm one…so I tried something different, and woohoo, it worked! We gotta celebrate every win :) One way to practice consistently is to try it in a class setting, like my Kids Yoga classes (~ages 2-5). These are offered a few times throughout the year as a 4-6 week series (meeting once per week) and can be thought of as toddler yoga or mommy and me yoga. You can learn more about it and sign up here, but I mention this because these classes meet as a series intentionally…kids need repetition and consistency, and they REALLY get into the classes!!
Be playful! Kids learn best through play. You can try a few of these playful ideas, which we do in my Kids Yoga classes too.
Lion breath – Breathe in, roar (as the exhale)
Hot/cold breath – see how you can control the temperature of your breath (video here)
Breathing ball – use this tool to show them how to take deep breaths and feel their ribs expanding and contracting (video here)
Co-regulate. Not all of these tactics will work for every kid, nor will they work in every situation. When it seems like nothing is working, know that you can be present and co-regulate with your child. What this means is, you breathe and say the words for them. Be the voice that gets ingrained in their heads, even into adulthood, that says “I can do this. I can be calm. These feelings are only a part of me; they do not make me “me”. I am loved. I can find a solution.” Use some version of those words; you can make up your own. I recommend Dr. Becky for a lot of her scripts in being the voice that lives in your kids’ heads. We want them to feel the calm coming from us and start to internalize that big feelings are not what defines them. We practice this in Kids Yoga by breathing and moving together. Even if/when kids aren’t paying attention at every moment, we keep moving and breathing, and they learn and absorb in their own way.
How to teach yourself and manage your own response to your child's emotions
Yes, this post is geared towards teaching kids how to breathe and how to use that skill to calm themselves down. BUT. Kids cannot learn well if parents and caregivers aren’t also teaching themselves to do the same. So, let’s talk about your breathing for a moment.
Adults benefit from breathing intentionally just as kids do! Most of us breathe shallowly, which contributes to stress as well as some physical side effects. When you train yourself to breathe intentionally, it’s a lot about noticing what’s going on in your body. Just like with kids, deep breaths can get you out of “fight or flight” mode and into a more stable place to respond to your child. For more physical benefits of breathing properly for adults, you can read this post here.
When you are in a “big feelings” moment, and you feel a rise of emotion within yourself, pause and take a breath. I have recently started saying out loud, “wow this has given me big feelings, and I need to take a deep breath.” I do that for two reasons: 1) It pauses my own reaction so that I’m no longer in “fight or flight” mode, and then I can choose how to respond, and 2) It models for my kids what I think would be good for them to learn too. I want them to have that voice in their head that says, it’s ok to stop in the middle of these feelings and decide what to do after a break.
When I pause and take a deep breath, I focus on something physical in my body to notice while breathing, like my ribs expanding all the way around or my shoulders relaxing as I exhale. Sometimes I take a deep breath and exhale with a sigh or “ha” sound. This helps me lower stress and activate my parasympathetic nervous system by stimulating my vagus nerve. When I’m calm, I can then begin to think about what I want to teach my child in that specific moment. If I don’t pause in that moment, I might yell and inadvertently teach my kids that yelling is the best strategy when angry. Or I might try to tell my kid what he/she HAS to do, and inadvertently teach them that asserting power is the best path forward. I certainly wouldn’t mean for these to be my messages, but it can happen. So, pause and breathe. (Also, know that none of us are perfect, and we are all doing the best we can, so give yourself some grace in this process).
Here are a few breathing practices you can try, in addition to noticing what you’re feeling in your body:
Box breathing - imagine you’re drawing a square. As you breathe in, draw the vertical line up, hold your breath while you draw the line across the top of the square, exhale as you draw the line down, hold your breath again as you draw the line across to finish the square.
Prolonged exhale - inhale for a count of 3, exhale for 5. You can count for longer than 3 and 5 if that suits you better. The point is for the exhale to be longer than the inhale.
I follow Dr. Sarah Duvall (a physical therapist) who recently referenced a study on the impact of prolonged exhales. About the study, she wrote: “This study showed that prolonged exhales were the most effective approach for improving mood, and they produced the greatest decrease in respiratory rate. It compared prolonged exhales to box breathing, prolonged inhales, and mindfulness meditation.” (Study: Balban MY, Neri E, Kogon MM, et al. Brief structured respiration practices enhance mood and reduce physiological arousal. Cell Rep Med. 2023;4(1):100895.)
Alternating nostril breathing - I’ve never done this one with my kids or in front of my kids, but it’s a practice that some find helpful. You gently press one nostril closed at a time, while alternating your inhales and exhales through each side. Breath in through the left, out through the right. In through the right, out through the left. It’s supposed to help reduce stress, lower anxiety and heart rate, and improve breathing. At minimum, you’re also noticing what’s going on in your body and slowing down a bit before responding to the situation you’re in.
I’m very curious what has worked for you and your kid(s)! Drop me a note to let me know what’s worked best and if you have any new ideas. We can all learn from each other!
Before you stop reading (and thank you for reading this far), let’s take a moment together and take a deep breath. While you breathe, will you pause with me and reflect on all we can be grateful for as parents?