How to calm a child? Children and adolescents are frequently asked to calm down, be positive, and pay attention, but they are rarely taught how to develop and hone these skills. It’s worth noting that these are actual skills that can be honed, and that there are scientifically proven methods for finding calm.
- Breathing is a powerful tool for self-regulation.
- Slow-paced breathing can significantly alter a young child’s physiological stress response.
- Mindful breathing has been found to reduce anxiety, promote self-regulation and positive thinking.
- However, children require scaffolding and that telling them to “take a deep breath” may not be sufficient.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our five free Calming Mindful Breathing Activities. These science-based exercises will help you in teaching calming mindful breathing to children in an engaging manner.
Stress, according to Barbara Fredrickson, Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, causes narrow-mindedness and makes it difficult to overcome challenges.
Positive feelings, on the other hand, expand our awareness and help us see more options and possibilities, making learning, relationships and problem solving easier, says Fredrickson.
Simply put, when it comes to learning, problem solving and applying social skills, our mental state is essential.
As educators and parents we know this from experience. We know that anxiety and stress inhibit children’s learning and social skills, and that a calm positive state improves their ability to “behave,” learn, focus, and memorize.
Self-regulation and attentional skills are vital when you need to listen carefully to what someone is telling you, when you want to learn something, and when you want to be good at sports or arts or do well in hobbies, so many things children struggle with.
Fortunately, simple breathing exercises can provide an immediate solution.
How to calm a stressed child: Taking deep breaths can significantly reduce children’s stress
Here’s why slow-paced conscious breathing is a great strategy to calm a child.
A Stanford study found that even taking a few slow, deep breaths can reduce children’s physiological arousal in everyday situations. The study’s lead author, Jelena Obradović, an associate professor at Stanford Graduate School of Education and director of the Stanford Project on Adaptation and Resilience in Kids says that deep breathing can be used in classrooms to help children self-regulate.
Perhaps most importantly, the study also discovered that children require scaffolding and that telling them to “take a deep breath” may not be sufficient because it is not intuitive for young children, and that children are more successful if they have a visual guide (Obradovic;Sulik;& Armstrong-Carter, 2021).
What this means is that slow-paced breathing itself can significantly alter a young child’s physiological stress response, but if you ask a young child to take a deep breath, many don’t know how to slowly pace their inhale and exhale if they haven’t had any training. This is my experience as well, and the reason why I’ve developed several visual and tactile ways for children to learn slow-paced breathing.
Changing the way we breathe can consciously change the way we feel
Interestingly, research shows that different emotions are associated with different forms of breathing (Philippot;Chapelle;& Blairy, 2002). The rhythm of breathing changes considerably depending on how we feel and what we are doing. Our breathing speeds up with emotional distress, and it slows down during periods of relaxation and calm.
For example, when you feel angry your breathing is often irregular, fast, short and shallow. Rapid and shallow chest breathing is common with emotional distress. On the other hand, when you feel joy, your breathing is often regular, slow and deep.
Fortunately, taking slow, deep breaths can help a person relax both physically and emotionally. Changing the pattern of your breath can signal relaxation, slowing your heart rate and stimulating the vagus nerve, which is part of the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for the body’s “rest and digest” activities (Gerritsen & Band, 2018).
Triggering your parasympathetic nervous system helps you start to calm down. You feel better and your ability to think rationally improves (Seppala;Bradley;& Goldstein, 2020).
Deep breathing can also maximize the amount of oxygen entering the bloodstream. Increased oxygen, in turn, can slow down the heartbeat and lower blood pressure (Cahalin;Braga;Matsuo;& Hernandez, 2002).
Slow-paced conscious breathing can thus assist us and our children throughout the day, whether they are overwhelmed or anxious, need to relax or sleep, need to calm their body after exercising, or simply need to pause and reset when they are high energy.
It can be done at any time and in any place. It is a quick way for children to relax in the moment, such as before tryouts, during a competition, or simply when they are nervous.
You can benefit from deep breathing exercises in the following ways:
- Relaxing the body
- Refocusing the mind
- Reducing stress and anxiety
- Lowering heart rate
- Increasing the body’s oxygen levels, which can have calming effects
I hope this article inspires you to try slow-paced breathing to help children destress.
If you liked this mindful relaxation activity, I recommend checking out our new breathing games and stories, which make learning calming breathing fun and easy …
“I think they are awesome. Using the games has helped my son to learn how to breathe and calm down when he is anxious.” -Jenny
With gratitude, Chris Bergstrom
Chief Mindfulness Ninja @ Blissful Kids
Chris Bergstrom is a bestselling mindfulness author, a leader in the field of mindfulness, the founder of BlissfulKids.com, a blog dedicated to children’s mindfulness, and a dad who is thrilled to practice mindfulness with his son. He is a certified mindfulness facilitator and trained to teach mindfulness to students in K-12. He’s also known as “the dad who tried 200+ mindfulness activities” and has taught meditation for more than 15 years.
Obradović J, Sulik MJ, Armstrong-Carter E. Taking a few deep breaths significantly reduces children’s physiological arousal in everyday settings: Results of a preregistered video intervention. Dev Psychobiol. 2021 Dec;63(8):e22214. doi: 10.1002/dev.22214. PMID: 34813098.
Philippot, P., Chapelle, G., & Blairy, S. (2002). Respiratory feedback in the generation of emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 16(5).
Gerritsen, R. J., & Band, G. P. (2018, Octovber 9). Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience
Seppala, E., Bradley, C., & Goldstein, M. R. (2020, September 29). Research: Why Breathing Is So Effective at Reducing Stress. Retrieved from Harvard Business Review: https://hbr.org/2020/09/research-why-breathing-is-so-effective-at-reducing-stress
Cahalin, L. P., Braga, M., Matsuo, Y., & Hernandez, E. D. (2002). Efficacy of diaphragmatic breathing in persons with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: A review of the literature. Journal of Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation and Prevention, 7-21.
Cho, H., Ryu, S., Noh, J., & Lee, J. (2016). The Effectiveness of Daily Mindful Breathing Practices on Test Anxiety of Students. PloS one, 11(10), e0164822. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0164822v
Joan P. Pozuelos, Bethan R. Mead, M. Rosario Rueda, Peter Malinowski, Chapter 6 – Short-term mindful breath awareness training improves inhibitory control and response monitoring, Editor(s): Narayanan Srinivasan, Progress in Brain Research, Elsevier, Volume 244, 2019, Pages 137-163, ISSN 0079-6123, ISBN 9780444642271, https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.pbr.2018.10.019.
Killingsworth MA, Gilbert DT. A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science. 2010 Nov 12;330(6006):932. doi: 10.1126/science.1192439. PMID: 21071660.
Brown KW, Ryan RM. The benefits of being present: mindfulness and its role in psychological well-being. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2003 Apr;84(4):822-48. doi: 10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1682. PMID: 12703651.
Feldman G, Greeson J, Senville J. Differential effects of mindful breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and loving-kindness meditation on decentering and negative reactions to repetitive thoughts. Behav Res Ther. 2010 Oct;48(10):1002-11. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2010.06.006. Epub 2010 Jun 23. PMID: 20633873; PMCID: PMC2932656.