One of the most frequent questions I hear from parents is how to help their kids manage fears, anxiety, negative thinking, difficulty with attention at school and explosive or disruptive behavior. Whew! And wouldn't you know, there's no easy answer to that doozie of a question.
As a mama myself, I feel that it's overwhelming to watch my kids struggle, and often, my knee-jerk reaction is a yearn to "fix" it. But as JFK said, "The time to fix the roof is when the sun is shining!" Though there are some mindful and helpful things we can do as parents or educators to support our kids in the moment of struggle, the best strategy to offer them is to give opportunities for
preventative instruction and mind & body training in a playful way to teach them how to tap into their own power. With a little education while the sun is shining, kids can learn how to hack their own nervous systems for when the time comes that they will need it. And my land, don't today's kids truly need it more often than not? Lucky for us all the easiest hack around is one kids already do without even thinking about it: breathe!
Deep, slow breathing that allows the diaphragm to drop deeply then float back up is scientifically proven to positively affect decision making, the immune system, the digestive system, the circulatory system and over all emotional stability. New research* involving Harvard trained Herbert Benson, also explains how the breath can actually positively affect gene expression for metabolism, insulin secretion and immune system functioning!
Deep breathing is a life serum that’s literally right under your nose, and it can change the way your kids feel and think in a matter of moments, side effect free. Most importantly, it empowers them to feel a sense of control in a modern, fast-paced world that offers them little of it.
Wanna tell your kiddo to breathe next time she panics at bedtime because monsters are peeking in the window? Great! But you better hold the cell phone. Most adults don't even have the correct breathing pattern for optimal effects. Check the graphic below and see if you can belly breathe effectively! You can't teach your kiddos what you don't have for yourself!
Fun Nervous System Hacks with Breath:
Here are a few of my favorite breathing exercises that I teach when the sun is shining, so to speak. These make breathing really playful and hack the nervous system to promote a calming, healing response:
1. Ping pong ball races (against yourself): Place a few ping pong balls or other light balls on a smooth surface and lie on your belly with mouth close to the floor. Use the breath to push the ping pong ball as far as you can in just one breath! Measure it and see if you can beat your own record! Not only does this work your breath, but it positions your body to extend the neck and straighten the spine, which is opposite of that hunched over tablet-neck that does a doozie on our kids’ developmental posturing and restricts movement of the diaphragm.
2. Make a breath rocket: Use a straw with a wrapper on it and only tear off one end. Take a big inhale and see how far you can push your straw cover into the air! The longer the breath out, the higher the rocket. You can also use a folded piece of paper taped up as a more durable rocket shuttle (as seen in this picture)!
3. Build a Breath Bubble Mountain: Inspired by the incredibly talented Angie Voss, OTR, author of the much loved sensory book, Understanding Your Child’s Sensory Signals. I have bubble mountains in all of my classes because I find it’s an excellent opportunity to develop attention span, calm the body and develop deeper breathing patterns. Kids will blow on these for 15 minutes straight, non-stop! I also have these set up in a corner of the yoga studio for kiddos to go blow on if they are having a difficult time focusing on the class instruction or feeling nervous about trying a pose. Just fill a container with water. Add a dab of dish soap, grab a straw and take one deep breath. See how big you can make your mountain in ONE breath. The trick is to blow all the air out with a very deep breath! Take another breath and see how big your mountain gets with that single breath, and so on! Keep going until your mountain is more like a volcano of overflowing bubbly prisms! Even the big kids get a kick out of this one!
4. Teach them how to "Take-5." In all of the classes I teach, the kids receive a foam star, which we embellish with stickers at all the tips and drawn arrows pointing along the outer edges of the star. We practice breathing in as we trace our fingers along the star from the outer tip of the star to the next inner point, then exhale as we trace our fingers from the inner tip to the outer tip. We inhale and exhale 5 times as we trace our fingers along the edge of the star until we land back at the starting point, which is a full 5 breaths. This is called the "Take-5," and it can be used prior to taking tests, going to bed, practicing reading or anything else that requires focus or calmness. If you don't have the star handy in real life, you can just count the breaths on the fingers of one hand or blow out on each finger as if it were a birthday candle!
After we’ve practiced breathing many times in these playful ways, I will suggest to kids: "next time you are mad/worried about your test,etc, imagine you are taking that feeling and blowing it into the bubble mountain or launching it like the breath rocket or moving it away from you like the ping pong ball. Use your deep, long breath to imagine the worry or anger blowing away from you."
This cue does a few things: 1. Puts distance between the feeling and the kid so he can better understand that it's ok to have any feeling, but he is not defined by that feeling and can set it aside if desired. 2. This cue also engages emotional intelligence and mindfulness so kids will better begin to identify emotions and feelings and understand how to address them with healthy coping skills.
The key to allowing full deep breathing and a more regulated nervous system is movement, movement and hours worth of daily full body movement! When we sit and hunch over toward media or technology, we restrict the natural range of motion of the diaphragm. If you want to really affect your child's ability to feel comfortable in her own skin, access an even-keel and do well in focused tasks, you can encourage her to get outdoors more, to play with bigger movements, to get some aerobic exercise and to move intermittently more often for HOURS each day.
Movement facilitates the deep, effective breath pattern that is so important for optimal brain and body development and health!
Empower your children with the breath hack and they will quite literally blow you away with everyday success and healthy coping for life!
Thank you for spending some of your precious time today to read this information about how to help kids have optimal brain and body functioning! I honor your efforts toward supporting kids and send you gratitude! I hope this serves you or someone you love well!
Lindsey Lieneck, MS, OTR, RYT, is owner of Yogapeutics in Austin, TX where she has developed the Yogapeutics Aerial Yoga & Mindfulness curriculum for kids. She teaches classes, consults with parents & schools and educates other professionals on the Yogapeutics curriculum. Read more about Lindsey HERE.
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