Deep Breathing Exercises for Kids
Mindful breathing techniques for kids of all ages.
Being a kid these days is stressful. Besides the usual growing pains of getting older, today’s children must deal with social media pressure, worsening climate change, combative politics and, of course, the latest pandemic.
Recent studies show that the past year was particularly difficult on the mental health of kids. Beginning in April 2020, the proportion of children’s mental health–related ED visits among all pediatric ED visits increased and remained elevated through October. Compared with 2019, the proportion of mental health–related visits for children aged 5–11 and 12–17 years increased approximately 24% and 31%, respectively.
While we can’t (and arguably shouldn’t) protect kids from every stressful situation, we can give them the tools to identify anxiety within themselves and address it. Exercise and hanging out with supportive friends are both healthy ways to relieve stress, but many kids (and their parents) are turning to deep breathing exercises as another way to cope.
Mindful breathing has been shown to dramatically decrease stress in kids. One study shows that short, regular deep breathing exercises for kids can improve attention and reduce anxiety. Here’s what else you need to know about breathing techniques for kids (and how to use them with the children in your life).
What is Breathwork?
Even though the average person breathes approximately 20,000 times per day (and that number is even higher for children), most of us don’t really think about doing it. But when we bring greater awareness to the way our breath moves in, out and around the body, amazing things can happen. When we bring consciousness to the breath, we can manifest deep, powerful results no matter what age we are.
“Unlike meditation, where we are aware of the mental chatter, breathwork is a broad term that emphasizes a focus on breathing as a way of grounding, centering, focusing, meditating and healing,” says breathwork guide and coach Gwen Dittmar. “Your breath is your connection to life. Without it, you would not be here. Breathwork allows you to reconnect to your life force and use that to expand versus the old way of pushing, forcing and burning out.”
Why is Breathwork Great for Kids?
Introducing even simple deep breathing techniques to kids can set them up with the tools to navigate stressful situations for the rest of their lives. “Kids' nervous systems are much more flexible and adaptable than adults,’” says Michael Kass, breathwork coach and founder of Story & Spirit. “Breathwork techniques can help kids consciously shift from a stress response to a rest-and-digest state. In the long-term, these techniques can help them build resilience in their nervous systems so that they can bring themselves back to a settled state more quickly and build a strong foundation for lifelong health and wellbeing.”
Kass says that a few years ago, he received a call from a mother whose teenage son was experiencing panic attacks. They were about to get a prescription for anti-anxiety medication when a friend recommended that they call him. In one 45-minute session, Kass was able to both identify a trigger of the panic attacks and teach a simple breathing technique. A week later, the mother called him to say that since using the deep breathing technique, her son’s panic and anxiety had subsided.
Breathwork can support children in these types of stressful situations because it positively impacts the brain, immune system and parasympathetic nervous system (which is responsible for the fight or flight response). “Through conscious breathing, children can activate their parasympathetic nervous system to slow down heart rate, lower blood pressure and create a feeling of calm,” says Dittmar.
Exercises to Get Started
One of the best ways to get kids familiar with deep breathing exercises is for parents to do them, too. Leading by example is one of the best ways to teach mindful breathing to kids, who unconsciously pattern themselves based on adult’s actions more often than their words. Dittmar recommends practicing both preventative breathing exercises (a regular practice in the morning, afternoon or evening) and responsive breathing techniques (specific exercises to do when we feel stressed, angry or scared).
“The beauty of breathwork is that it can be done in any format and location,” says Dittmar. “By bringing your awareness to your breath and consciously breathing, you can feel more grounded, centered, focused, calm and relaxed. When we feel regulated and present, we are able to access more happiness, joy and compassion.”
Kass thinks about the body being in two states: settled and activated. “Oftentimes, kids feel as if they don’t have control over their reactions,” he says. “When they lose control, they aren’t able to identify their feelings. So the first step is building awareness and the understanding that it’s totally okay to feel activated.”
With that as a foundation, Kass recommends then introducing deep breathing techniques. “Some are great to use every day, as regularly as brushing your teeth,” he says. “Others are effective in the heat of the moment to help bring balance back to the body and mind. Every kid is different, so it’s important to pay attention and listen, instead of being overly prescriptive.”
Here are three of Kass’s favorite deep breathing techniques to get your kids started:
Coming Home Breath: Simply breathe into the belly for a count of five, hold the breath for a moment, then release it with a sigh.
“The idea of the sigh is that it feels like sliding into a really warm bath,” says Kass. “When I teach this technique to kids, I often pair it with movement. As they breathe in, they draw oxygen in from the ground and pull it all the way into their body until their arms are high above their heads and they're standing on their tiptoes. Then, when they exhale, they swoosh to the ground. The movement really helps them embody this simple, powerful technique that's both grounding and energizing.”
Box Breath: Breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, and hold for a count of four. Then, repeat three to five more times.
“The idea is to create a sense of spaciousness during overwhelming moments so that the mind and body can settle,” says Kass. “When teaching this to kids, it's fun to have them imagine drawing a box in the air with each cycle. They can imagine different colors, textures and even fill the boxes with images.”
Heart Breath: Place hands over heart. Breathe in for a count of five and exhale for a count of five. If five feels like too long, start with three. Bring awareness to the sensation of the breath moving in and out of the heart.
“Imagine filling the heart with replenishing emotions like joy, gratitude or belonging, and then exhaling anything that doesn't feel great,” Kass says. “Because kids often have so much access to their sense of play and imagination, this can really help them settle their systems and anchor themselves in a sense of wellbeing when the world feels a bit chaotic.”
One of the best parts about breathing exercises for kids is that there’s no special equipment or apparel required. But if your kids do need a few new pieces, we’ve got you covered.