Teaching children with anxiety how to manage their fears can be a daunting task. It’s easy to feel that their anxiety is somehow a reflection on your parenting skills; as though somehow you didn’t do your job well enough. Or you may be afraid that your child needs counseling, intensive therapy, or has issues with a mental illness. In reality, one in ten children will experience anxiety at some point during their childhoods. So if your child is struggling with phobias or other nervous issues, rest assured that their behavior is not a result of your parenting skills, and in most cases, your child is not struggling with a mental illness. Instead, the way that anxiety is channeled through the brain can cause what some experts call a “mental misunderstanding.” As a parent, you can learn more about this mental misunderstanding and help give your child the coping tools she needs to break free of the anxious thought process.
Fear: The Mind/Body Connection
Is the anxious child plagued by a genetic predisposition to fear, or is your lifestyle to blame for her anxiety? While both elements can play a role in triggering anxiety, the truth is that almost anything can trigger an anxious response in your child. Think for a moment about the “fight or flight” response. If you are in a situation that provokes your anxiety to the point that cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline begin pumping, your body is creating this reaction as a result of a perceived threat. A good example of this is when you almost have a car accident – your body starts the “fight or flight” response as an answer to the perceived threat of a potential wreck. Every time you get into a “close call” with another car, your stress response is likely to be provoked.
Children are the same way. If your child is headed to school and something crosses her mind that provokes an anxious response, her heartbeat will speed up, her respiration will increase, and her reserves of cortisol and adrenaline will begin pumping. It could be a simply thought, like “I hope no one will make fun of me in school today.” But then, as her fight or flight response kicks in, her physical reaction can actually aggravate her nerves – she notices these physical sensations, and since they are a little scary, she feels even more anxious. This feeds into a vicious circle in which your child is unable to calm herself down because her physical reaction to a single anxious thought is so overpowering.
In addition, the fight or flight response creates what is known as “neural pathways” through the brain. So every time your child is in the same situation that provoked the original anxious response, her brain is now wired to start that same fight or flight response as soon as your child is put in the same situation. This also makes the anxious response more intense as it is reinforced by the brain time and time again. The only way to break the cycle and help your child gain mastery over the anxiety is to teach her coping mechanisms that break the fight or flight response. Diaphragmatic breathing is one such coping mechanism.
What Is Diaphragmatic Breathing?
When the fight or flight response kicks in, your child’s respiration speeds up. In order to break the vicious cycle and calm the stress response, it’s necessary to slow down her breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing is one way to do just that. This breathing technique calms and relaxes your child, keeping her from giving way to panic attacks, meltdowns, or other extreme reactions to nervousness.
Diaphragmatic breathing is also known as belly breathing, deep breathing, coastal breathing, or abdominal breathing. Unlike shallow breathing, which only involves flexing the rib cage, in diaphragmatic breathing your child attempts to breathe deeply by flexing the diaphragm. In this way, she ingests more oxygen, which will help keep you from hyperventilating and the body will calm the anxious response.
Teaching your child how to do diaphragmatic breathing is a very valuable way to help her learn to deal with anxiety on her own.
Diaphragmatic Breathing Exercises
You can teach your child to do the following exercise whenever she is faced with an anxiety-provoking situation. Have her start by lying down and then later she can progress to using this exercise in a chair or while standing:
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If your child has trouble with breathing deeply enough at first, try having her balance a stuffed animal on her tummy and try to move it just by breathing. This should help her get the feeling for how she should breathe down deeply into her diaphragm – which can be a hard concept to explain to little ones.
Have your child practice this technique once or twice a day when she is not feeling anxious. This will help her to understand and ingrain the exercises in her mind, preparing her for the time when she does have an anxious response.
While you can’t make your child avoid every anxiety-producing situation, you can help her learn to manage stress effectively and avoid panic attacks and meltdowns by treating her the proper stress management techniques. Diaphragmatic breathing is just one tool in your anti-anxiety arsenal.