Anxiousness is on the rise among children. Helicopter parents, high-stakes testing and not-enough-likes on Facebook are stressing kids out. Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist says therapy isn’t always the solution—breathing is.
“Deep breathing is the single best thing you can do when you feel anxious,” Hurley, author of the forthcoming The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World, told Quartz.
Deep breathing hardly feels like rocket science. But anyone who has young children knows the only time it actually happens is when they are sleeping or they are about to pitch the mother-of-all temper tantrums. And if it were so easy, grown-ups would not be swept up in a craze of mindfulness and meditation.
Here are a few of Hurley’s tips for parents whose kids suffer from mild to moderate anxiety. They take time, something we are all short of. But who said parenting was quick and easy?
“Most kids don’t know how to do it,” she says. She has kids pretend that they are going to blow up a balloon. They imagine the balloon they want, describing to her the design and color. She reminds them that you can’t blow up a balloon with a short, fast breath. She has them breathe in for a count of four, hold it for three, and release for four. Repeat.
“Deep breathing relaxes the central nervous system and helps reduce stress symptoms.” (Grown-ups, feel free to try this too. It helps).
Teachers and athletes use variations of this technique to improve focus and performance. Hurley’s version is called “relaxing stories.” Get your kid in a happy place, thinking about rolling waves or forests filled with fairies, while reminding them to do the deep breathing. Talk for 20 minutes in a calm, measured way, maybe getting them involved (“what do you see in the forest?”). While this might not sound much different than reading bedtime stories, it is. There are no pictures, no evil troll voices or fairy godmothers to excite the senses. “It’s not as exciting as a story,” she says. The steady voice and the deep breathing will help to sooth and relax your child.
When kids are worried, Hurley gets them to talk back to their brains. She teaches them that they have a “worry brain” and a “happy brain”. Sometimes, it seems, the person in charge of the worry brain gets a little too loud and bossy. “When this happens, we spend too much time thinking about the ‘what ifs’ and that clouds our ability to do the things we need to do,” she says. Kids practice bossing back by saying things like, “no way, worry brain, I’m not afraid of that math test. I know how to do math and I will do just fine.” Or “stop it worry brain, I know I can make friends here”. If they do it when they are calm, they will be better prepared to boss back when they are anxious.
Hurley’s final bit of advice is less practical and more philosophical. Parent the kid you have, not the one you wish you had. Yelling at a sensitive kid does not help your kid deal with being sensitive. “When we fail to understand the individual temperament of each child we miss a big piece of the parenting puzzle,” she says. They are all different so why should we parent them the same way?
“Happiness is not something we can hand them on a platter. It’s giving them the tools to cope with life,” says Hurley. “When we give kids the tools they need to cope with stress, anxiety and anger, they take those tools with them and learn to adapt them as they grow.”