Research studies tell us that by the age of thirteen, 1 in 3 Irish children have experienced some form of mental health difficulty. To put this in perspective, for any family with 3 children it is likely that one will present with mental health issues before they are a teenager, with anxiety being one of the most common issues reported.
Parents in Ireland are very aware of the reality of children living with anxiety and the challenges they face. We know this as we are dealing with the anguish that anxiety causes our children every day. However, the good news for parents is that we know that the presence of what we call ‘one good adult’ available for support really makes a difference. If we are to be that support for our children, what can we do to help?
Firstly, it is important that we understand what is happening inside a child’s body when they experience anxiety.
Anxiety is our internal alarm system and is designed to help us survive danger. It comes from a primitive area of the brain linked to fear responses and responsible for detecting risk. It receives information from our senses and prepares us to fight or flight, responding to any perceived threat. When this happens, our breathing becomes shallow, our heart rate increases and our body gets ready to respond to threats. We all experience anxiety at times. However, for some of our children, these responses become overactive, and they can spend a lot of time trapped in this fight or flight state. When this happens, this primitive part of the brain makes it harder for them to think clearly, respond calmly, and communicate.
We can support our children by teaching them techniques to counter this stress response. One simple technique which is particularly useful is controlled breathing. If our children practice controlled breathing, these deep, controlled breaths can slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure, and calm the fight or flight response.
So, what is controlled breathing? It’s just breathing, right? Well not exactly. What we should be aiming for is breathing down into our diaphragm, taking even, deep breaths, resulting in the air moving to our lower lungs. We usually call this belly breathing when speaking to children. By deliberately shifting our breathing in this way we can stimulate the body’s relaxation response, which is a calming influence.
Start by inhaling slowly through the nose for a count of three, then pause. Exhale slowly through the mouth for a count of three, pause, and repeat the process. Try to get your child to practice this slow breathing on a regular basis when they are calm. This very effective technique can help children send the message back to this primitive part of the brain that all is well. It is also a way of showing your child that their breathing is within their own control. Doing this exercise helps children calm down, focus, and relax when they are feeling anxious.