The first day of school has come and gone, and the daily grind is in full effect. New teachers and classmates, busy after-school schedules and homework—it is exciting but can at times feel chaotic and overwhelming. When our children feel overwhelmed, their nervous systems are activated, making it difficult to pay attention, follow directions and make sound decisions.
We know those moments when we want so badly to reason with our children, but it feels like there is no hope. In times like these, it is helpful to understand a little more about our nervous system and how we can take steps to teach our children (and ourselves) to calm the chaos.
Before I go any further, I want you to try something. All you will need is a timer and your breath. Set the timer for one minute and for that minute, simply breathe in and out through your mouth. Once the minute is up, notice how your body feels and what, if any, thoughts are going through your mind. Now, set the timer for another minute, and this time, breathe in and out through your nose. Once again, when the minute is up, notice how you feel and any thoughts in your mind.
I use the “mouth-nose experiment” with children and parents often, and I get similar responses from all ages. Children have said that when they are breathing in and out through the mouth, they feel nervous, like they are running at gym class. One child even called it heart attack breathing. In contrast, when breathing in and out through the nose, children mentioned feeling sleepy or calm and some noticed that their mind was less busy with thoughts.
The “mouth-nose experiment” exemplifies the powerful connection between our breath, body and nervous system. When we are breathing in and out of the mouth only, we activate our sympathetic nervous system or fight, flight, or freeze response. When this system is activated, we experience bigger emotions, can lose focus, and our judgment is impaired. In contrast, when we are breathing in and out through the nose, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system or rest and digest response. When this system is activated, we feel calm and focused, can see the big picture and make sound decisions.
Many of our children feel stress and anxiety, and as a result, their sympathetic nervous systems are activated. Children are empowered to learn that they have a secret tool in their own body that can be used to regulate their emotions and create a sense of calm. During the difficult moments when your child cannot be reasoned with, help them learn the power of their breath.
Try these three breathing exercises with your children at home, and remember to practice when they are calm so that they can access this powerful tool in times of stress:
1. Smell the flower, Blow the windmill: I like to put a small amount of lavender oil (for it’s calming effect) on a silk flower, but you can use a real flower or any good smell that would be appealing to your child. Teach them to inhale through the nose by smelling the flower, and show them how to exhale through the mouth making their windmills spin. Children love the visuals, and it helps them practice the skill of breathing.
2. “Rockabye Baby”: Have your child grab their favorite stuffed animal and “rock” it to sleep while lying flat on the back with the stuffed animal on their belly. It is helpful for children to see their bellies rise with an inhale and fall with an exhale and can be a very soothing practice before nap or bedtime.
3. Back to Back Breathing: This is a great exercise to try with your child and can also be great for siblings to try together. Both participants should sit back to back and stay as quiet as possible. Notice the pattern of your partner’s breath— whether their breath is longer or shorter than yours. See if without speaking, you can sync your breath with your partner’s. Parents have reported using this exercise after a frustrating incident with their child as a way to connect and move on from the negative experience.
I hope that you and your family find ways of incorporating these breathing exercises into your family routine. If you would like more information about how to incorporate mindfulness and breath with your family or have other questions, please contact me here.