Teaching Very Young Children Deep Breathing Techniques for Anxiety Management
by Lisa Klipfel, MA, LMFT www.OCchildTHERAPY.com
The age of onset for anxiety seems to be getting younger every day. Parents and teachers of kindergarteners and preschoolers express their concerns to me about their kid’s anxiety. They are tentative to label their child with anxiety. I tell them to think of anxiety as the feeling of fear that has gotten away from them and I offer practical and fun solutions for very young children such as deep breathing techniques.
The first step in helping a very child to manage their anxiety is to learn about physiology. Yes, at such a young age I teach them about life sciences, although most are already aware of the flight or fright phenomenon related to the animal kingdom. Most kids have already learned about this either through Animal Planet, TV shows or visits to the zoo. The concept of predator animals causing fear in prey is not a new concept to these very young children.
While learning about the fear response, we discuss how the animal and human bodies respond with rapid breathing, increased heart rate, sweating, and even enuresis or encopresis. Some children are relieved to know an enuretic episode was related to anxiety helping to resolve some shame. Once they can understand how their body is effected, just as a squirrel might be effected, they can begin to recognize the onset on their anxiety.
The basic techniques for the beginning stages of anxiety for both children and adults is deep breathing. The reason for this is that it physiologically counteracts the fear and anxiety. It brings oxygen to your muscles to relax them. It slows down your heart rate. It releases endorphins. It clears your mind. All of these things help to bring an anxious person adult or child to a more relaxed and calm state.
The techniques is taking a long, deep breath from your diaphragm and exhale deeply for approximately the same amount of time. This process is repeated until the person is in a calmer state. It is typically a minimum of five breaths, but a specific amount of time such as 10 minutes might be needed for some people in certain situations. Most adults know what you mean when you ask them to take a deep breath, but very young children need directives in how to breath deeply and slowly for anxiety management. The following techniques were compiled and designed to help very young children do deep breathing exercises in a fun and engaging way.
Smelling the Flowers
When we walk up to a rose bush, we instinctively take in a deep breath so that we can inhale the sweet scent of the rose. Many times we take more than one breath to smell it.
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Incorporating that into a visual aid for a child, a parent can create 5 photos of flowers that are hung in a row with corresponding numbers 1-5. The child then sniffs the first photos with a deep breath, then the second until they get through to number five. This visual can be expanded to include five silk flowers, either in a row or a vase. If you have a scent that the child likes and finds relaxing, you can squirt it on the cards, paper or silk flowers. Although if you use an actual scent, you will need to test it first to ensure the child is tolerant of the smell. Vanilla, lavender and chamomile are relaxing scents.
The mystical dragon is often intriguing to children with it’s fire breath. A great craft that can be created is a dragon’s head made out of a paper cup and some streamers helping children with deep breathing with fire breath. The idea is to blow a deep breath out through a small hole in the bottom of the cup making the fire (made out of crepe paper, or even cup up napkins or tissue paper) located at the top of the cup to fly up into a 90 degree fire expelling manner. This dragon head is fun for the kids to create and they are quick to use it when they need to.
Another common experience for children is blowing out birthday candles. They are aware that they need to take in a deep breath to blow out all their candles in order for their wish to come true. A visual representation of a candle can be created with popsicle sticks with some tinsel on the top. The sticks can be painted or colored as well as numbered. When the child blows on the mock candle, the tinsel waves like the flicker of a flame without the danger of actual candles.
While there are so many other examples, the important concept in all three of these aides is that the child is learning to take a deep breath in and a deep breath out for a minimum of five breaths. Some children will need ten or even twenty depending on the situation. Children will naturally want to make it go by faster, trying to take shorter breaths each time. It’s important that they take the same long deep inhale and exhale for each one.
While it is natural for children to feel fear, when their fears interfere with daily life, it is important to bring them to see a therapist. This may include families avoiding certain items, roadways, or events to avoid instituting a fear. It may include parents not having a break due to a child being afraid of being apart from them. It is instinctual to protect them, but don’t let your child miss out on their childhood due to a fear.
Lisa Klipfel is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in San Clemente, CA. Her specialty is play therapy and works primarily with children. How to create these aides can be found on her Anxiety pinterest board: http://pinterest.com/misslisamft/.