Helping Children Cope with Anxiety

Take a deep breath. It’ll be alright. It’s just a doctor’s appointment. Breathe. It’s just a math test. Close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. It’ll be okay. Just breathe.

Just breathe? But, how?

It’s ironic that something that we do automatically can sometimes be so difficult to do well. Have you ever caught yourself holding your breath before a performance or big exam? When we’re stressed or nervous, we sometimes forget to breathe -and that’s a problem. Children are also prone to anxiety and stress. And according to the American Psychological Association, these issues can cause problems for your little ones. Even more upsetting: if children don’t learn to effectively handle this anxiety, they may be unable to reach their full potential later in life. Signs of anxiety and stress include:

  • Negative behavior changes, such as hostility
  • Unexplained sickness, such as headaches and stomach aches
  • Acting out
  • Expressions of self doubt (i.e. saying they’re “not good enough”)
  • Saying they’re “angry,” “annoyed” or “confused” because they can’t identify stress
  • Classic panic attacks

One of the best ways to reduce and channel anxiety is through special breathing techniques.  Below are some breathing tips that your child (and you!) can adopt to help combat anxiety:

Belly Breathing This technique is recommended for children three to seven, although it’s still useful for older youths. Have your child lie on his back with both hands on his belly. Tell him to keep his mouth closed, and inhale slowly through the nose as he counts to eight in his head. Have him hold that breath for a count of two, and then breathe out slowly through the nose or mouth. In both instances, it helps if you count softly with your child. And make sure his belly goes up and down. This exercise can be repeated as many times as necessary. If you’re not sure if your child has done it enough times, ask how he feels. Even articulating their stress can help them control it.

Controlled Breaths Another technique that’s handy for when there’s nowhere to lie down is controlled breathing.

controlled breathing

Have your child place one hand on the chest, and the other just below the belly button as she takes several deep breaths. If done properly, this should expand the diaphragm, causing the hand on the belly to move forward more than the hand on the chest. This breathing technique is especially effective if coupled with other stress-reduction techniques, such as “progressive relaxation,” which involves alternately tensing and relaxing the muscles.

Mindful Breaths Mindfulness is developing quite the reputation—and with good reason! Although commonly linked to meditation, mindfulness is actually, to a certain extent, a lifestyle choice that can include everything from deep breathing and meditation, to taking the time to smell the flowers and enjoy a meal. More specifically, it’s a way to focus on the present moment. A growing body of research indicates that mindfulness is a great way to promote psychological well-being.

Mindful breathing is just normal breathing! Except, this time, while your child is breathing – preferably while seated – encourage her to focus on how her breath feels, and how her body feels as she breathes. What kinds of sensations go through her arms and legs, torso and head? Is anything tense? Is she breathing normally, or is the breath hurried or gasping? This exercise helps your child to focus inwards, and to let go of stress. Another option is to integrate visualization into the exercise – ask your child to visualize a tranquil scene, like a beach or a mountain. Alternatively, if your child is a bit older and can grasp more abstract concepts, they can even imagine physically “letting go” of stress. When I was studying for my SATs, I was told to visualize putting all my stress in a bucket, sending it out to sea, and watching it disappear into the horizon.

Something Structured Finally, you can help your child deal with stress and learn to breathe better through yoga and meditation. There are plenty of options for yoga in most neighborhoods, and there are a myriad of free online guided meditation programs. Pick whichever suits your child! Learning to identify and deal with anxiety is part of growing up. And the first thing your child will do—before doing anything else—is breathing.

What are some techniques you use to help your child cope with anxiety?

Photo credits:  Hosh Kids at Hosh Yoga

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Laura Cofsky is the communications strategist for -and advisory committee member at -Hosh Kids. A recent University of Pennsylvania graduate, Laura has interned with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Fitness Magazine, Dow Jones, and USA Today. You can read her work on the Hosh Yoga and Hosh Kids blogs, and follow her on Twitter @LauraCky1.

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2 thoughts on “Helping Children Cope with Anxiety

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