Our bodies have specific functions that are automatic; breathing is one of these functions. We naturally breathe, not focusing on it until we can’t breathe; then it is our total focus.
How do we teach children to breathe when they struggle with anxiety or strong emotions. Asking them to breathe can mean so many things to them. It also can mean nothing as they think or reply,” I am breathing!”
Some skills that I have worked with many of my clients are modified Tai Chi qi gong breathing, bubble breathing, and triangle breathing.
Our kiddos can be playing one moment and the next having a meltdown, turning tables, and hiding under the tables. Some have anxiety that overwhelms them, resulting in panic attacks. For parents or adults reading this blog, I want to point out the Jeckle Hyde kiddo and how that happens?
Jack is playing; he appears fine and full of energy; you look over and know he is doing well. All seems great at the moment, but you notice a block on the end of the table that may fall if he moves closer to the table. This action can result in many events depending on your child.
Jack is prone to meltdowns due to sudden changes in his world. He can become anxious, start to run away, or engage in a crying-yelling tantrum. Knowing this about your child will help understand what responses are best to bring him from quiet and inquisitive Dr. Jekel to the expressive and out-of-control Mr. Hyde?
Our body is built on the flight, fight, freeze reaction when we hit our stress point. It is like a cup that becomes overfull and tips everything around. Our innate response to stress, fear, or danger is flight, fight, or freeze. These responses are built in our nervous system to keep us alive. The sympathetic nervous system is the part of the autonomic nervous system which prepares the body for stress-related activities, such as the fight, flight, or freeze response. It helps us navigate danger and show us where we can find safety. It also helps us know when our cup is complete, and we are ready to explode: our cup overflows, causing some reaction to the actions that sent us to the top.
Now back to Jekel and Hyde’s actions. Jack is playing; he is happy, and all is well in his world. Someone comes in, taking his attention to a different area for a moment—his project he is building moves to one side as he turns. Jack, who was quiet and doing well one second, is now yelling, throwing this project, and hitting his head with his fist. The action caused his project to tip over. What happened?
Jack is usually on high alert due to past trauma and sensory input. He is 3/4 full on his stress cup load. At this point in his stress level, it will not take much to push him over the top. When the tipping point happens, he may meltdown, tantrum, or withdraw.
Many of our kiddos are like Jack; we adults need to know their stress level and when their cup is ready to overflow. Like Jack, our kiddos become Mr. Hyde and out of control, unpredictable, and turn into that ‘other person’ we don’t like to admit they can become.
So, the question is, how do we stop this change in persona?
What can we do to help our kiddos in their moments of stress?
A couple of things may help; however, they take practice, time, and parent involvement. No skill happens overnight or by accident. These things need to be taught, trained, and technique perfected like any skill.
- Breathing, yes, we started with breathing, and we are going to look at a few ways to help our kiddos know when to breathe. There are a few ways to teach your kiddo deep and rapid breaths, which may help in most situations. I want to add that if your kiddo is in a meltdown or freeze situation, they cannot access higher functioning levels of thinking, so speaking to them, asking what is wrong, or telling them to stop, will not work.
- Bubble breathing: use bubbles and have your child practice taking a deep breath, holding it for three counts, and blow slowly to see how many bubbles they can make.
- Have your child lie on his back, putting hands on his stomach, breathe in and out slowly, feeling his chest rise like a balloon.
- Slowly raise hands overhead as they breathe in, stop hold breathe for four counts, bring hands down in front of their face to the chest while breathing out slowly.
- breathe in through their nose- count to three, hold the breath- count to three, breathe out like a straw- count to three
Once your kiddo knows how to breathe during a stress overload, all you have to say is “breath,” and he will understand what you mean.
There are also some breathing tools and mindfulness games to help with breathing; however, teaching breathing without extra tools is also possible.
I do want to add that my grandson struggles with meltdowns and touch. Your kiddo may also struggle with touch or demands when he is at his tipping point. Many react to the child with “stop that!” or “come out of there.” These reactions to their stress, anxiety, or fear will only add to the negative behaviors. These negative behaviors are their coping strategies. They are only destructive or disturbing to those watching and demanding atypical behaviors. What would your reaction be if we took the emotions ’embarrassed’ or “ashamed” out of the situation?
You can’t expect atypical behaviors out of neurodiverse children.
Each child is unique and has a stress level, tipping point, and trauma. We as adults should step past ourselves and understand what the child needs to be successful.
These strategies can also work for adults; remember, we can not think clearly if we are thinking from bottom-to-top: the brain stem to the frontal lobe.