Blowing the Mads and Sads Away: Breathing to Self-Calm

Self-calming is a key skill your child can learn.  The most basic strategy you can teach your child is to breathe slowly and gently to help calm the body’s physical reaction to distress (i.e., the fight or flight feelings). When the body feels bad and is in a state of distress, it’s hard to think or be logical. These physical feelings are like the scary music in a movie. I’m dating myself – but think of the Jaws movie. What makes it so suspenseful and scary is the music! It’s not so scary if there’s no music. Use these strategies to minimize the “music,” decrease overall stress, and self-calm.

Help your child understand what happens to our bodies when angry, frustrated, anxious, etc. Use a doll or drawing to point out the following physical reactions:

  • Heart beating fast or pounding
  • Breathing fast; feeling short of breath
  • Stomachache or nausea
  • Hot
  • Tight muscles
  • Feeling light-headed or dizzy
  • Headache
  • Tears
  • Shaky
  • Restless energy

Teach your child slow, gentle breathing.

  • Explain: Our bodies are really good at getting upset (or insert other emotions) but not so good at calming down. Our job is to teach it. Let’s talk about how you can help your body to feel better.
  • Demonstrate slow, gentle breathing:

1.      Put one hand on your chest below your neck and the other hand right above your belly button. Pretend you have a big balloon in your tummy. Let’s fill it up. Watch you hand go up as you fill it up. Now let it out slowly. Great job! One more time. This helps your body feel calm and relaxed. *Some children also like to do this exercise lying down on the floor.

2.      Our bodies are better at getting upset than calming down. If you want to get better at something, what do we do? That’s right – we practice! Practicing breathing can be pretty boring but I know a secret. The secret is how to blow really awesome bubbles. If you breathe in really slow and let it out gentle, then you can blow super bubbles. Let’s see who can blow the most bubbles. *If your child has trouble blowing bubbles, you can have him “help you” blow the bubbles by breathing in and out just like you as you blow the bubbles. You can also use a pinwheel.

3.      Now let’s practice blowing pretend bubbles. Blow “bubbles.” Did you see how many bubbles I blew? Let’s see how many you can do. Let’s imagine blowing your mads (or other feeling) away. Watch them float away.

  • Practice daily. We’re going to practice this every day so we get really good at breathing and feeling calm so when we do get upset, the breathing will work better to help us calm our bodies. This is great for mommies and daddies to practice too. I’m glad we’re going to work together.

R einforce and model the breathing.

1.      Make a habit of breathing every time you change activities (get in/out of car, finish breakfast, go upstairs, etc). Take a slow, gentle breath – like a big sigh. It releases the tension and stress that builds up during the day and helps clear the mind to get ready for the next activity. Do this with your child or remark that you are taking a break and a taking a breath so that the child might join you. This is a life skill that helps reduce overall stress. You might be surprised at how much you benefit from using this strategy!

2.      When your child is upset, breathe with your child. State the emotion and situation. You are so upset we have to leave. I know it would be more fun if we could stay but we have to go. Use the cue: Let’s blow the sads (or mads) away.

3.      Only give your child one, at the most two reminders. You cannot force your child to breathe when upset. You can only model, suggest, and reinforce it. That’s OK if you don’t want to take a breath, but I’m going to take a couple before we leave. Then model the slow, gentle breathing.

4.      Every time you see your child practicing, pay attention and/or praise their effort (even if it didn’t work so well). I’m proud of you for trying your breathing, even if it didn’t help as much as you wanted. I saw you stop and take a breath when upset – you’re doing a great job teaching your body to calm down.

5.      Model breathing when upset. When you have a problem situation arise, talk out loud and about your feelings, the situation, and your breathing. I am upset right now or that didn’t go as expected. I’m going to take a few breaths to calm down before I decide what to do.

It takes practice and consistency to develop this skill, but you and your child will be glad you did!