Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health problems identified in children. Estimates of the rates of prevalence vary greatly from 8% to 27% lifetime prevalence by age 18.
These breathing techniques for anxiety in children are easy to master, quick to perform and powerful in their impact. Whether you’re a teacher, parent or carer of a child with anxiety or any other mental health condition, these simple tips can help calm and console any child within minutes.
How to breathe
This might sound silly – we all breathe unconsciously every moment of the day! True, but how effectively do we breathe?
The first step to mastering breathing techniques for anxiety in children is to learn about ‘belly breathing’. When children are stressed or anxious, their breathing becomes fast and shallow, with the breath concentrated in their chest. This causes their cortisol levels to rise and sometimes even results in hyperventilation.
The key to calm breathing is to focus on the belly. With each in-breath, the belly should expand, and with each out-breath, it should contract. This may take some getting used to and there are a few tricks you can try to help children get to grips with it.
For example, you can ask the child to lie down on their back and place a soft toy or book on their stomach. Tell them to concentrate on trying to push the toy or book up towards the ceiling with their breath when they breathe in, and return it back down as they breathe out. Once they get more comfortable with belly breathing, they’ll no longer need the prop and will be able to take deep, calming belly breaths whenever they need to.
Using bubbles is a fun and engaging breathing technique for anxiety in children. The gentle action of blowing bubbles forces them to use slow and careful breath, which immediately calms them.
It also creates a focus for the child to distract them from intrusive or troublesome thoughts. Sometimes, this action can be strong enough to minimise a panic attack or prevent a meltdown.
It’s a lovely activity to do with groups of children, either at school or at home with siblings, as it does not single out any children, it’s fun and works for those who need it.
This is one of the simplest breathing techniques and can be learned even by very young children.
Encourage the child to pick a hand and stretch out their fingers. Taking the index finger of their other hand, the child begins at the base of their thumb. As they breathe in, they slowly run their index finger up the length of the thumb until it reaches the top. Then, as they breathe out, they can slowly run their index finger down the other side of the thumb. For the next breath, they’ll move on to the next finger.
They can continue this pattern until they reach the outside base of their pinky finger. It’s a very easy technique that shifts their focus, slows their breathing and can minimise their anxiety.
In our new video about tips for teachers on how to help children manage anxiety, Sian Williams discusses a coping technique called 5,4,3,2,1.
If a child is experiencing anxiety or a panic attack, they can calm their breathing by focusing on:
- 5 things they can see
- 4 things they can touch
- 3 things they can hear
- 2 things they can smell
- 1 thing they can taste
The upside of this activity is that, as it diverts the child’s attention from their anxiety, it can also slow their breathing. This lowers blood pressure and steadies their heart rate, meaning they will feel physically calmer and more able to keep a clear head.
Where to seek help for anxiety in children
A parent or teacher may not need to refer immediately to a healthcare professional if the anxiety is mild. Instead it’s best to keep an eye on the child and offer support.
If the symptoms persist or worsen then you may consider consulting with the GP and discussing whether a referral to a healthcare professional would be beneficial.
To learn more about anxiety in children, you can read our free fact sheet or watch one of our short films.