One thing I’ve learnt from the years I’ve spent practicing yoga and meditation, is how important the breath is.
The constant reminder to come back to your breath to centre and calm yourself is something I’ve carried with me for a long time. While belly breathing is our body’s natural way to inhale and exhale, it’s more common for adults to breathe through the chest, hence the need to be reminded of this.
Deep belly breathing is an ancient technique that’s been practiced for thousands of years by cultures around the world and with good reason.
This type of breathing switches on our parasympathetic nervous system, lowers stress levels and allows us to relax more efficiently.
I’m always using this technique in my own life and find it helpful not only when I need to bring myself back to the present moment, but in times of stress.
As a busy adult, used to juggling a lot of things in life, I always knew that I found it to be an effective tool, but I’d never really considered it for my children. Until one day, out of the blue and quite organically, it came in handy.
The first time I tried it with River he was really upset, crying to the point of hyperventilating and I just thought, “I’ve got to get him to take deep breaths and calm down.” It was a very instinctive moment.
I asked him to look into my eyes and to listen to me. I put my hands on his belly and said to him “I need you to breathe into Mama’s hands, into your tummy, nice big breaths like this.” I demonstrated how to do it, and he, in turn, copied me. I said to him; “good boy, that’s excellent, okay let’s do it again,” and he did it, over and over again, breathing into my hands and he started to calm down.
I think having the knowledge in the back of my head about the breath fed into my maternal instincts and I somehow knew that this would be an effective way to calm my child. Likewise, I think I also sensed that with him shallow breathing the way he so often did, it was only going to exacerbate the distress he was feeling and I needed to combat that, fast.
The affect that this technique has on River is quite remarkable to watch and witness and over the past three years that we’ve been doing this, it’s been a case of practice makes perfect. He has gotten so good at dropping down and slipping into this mode when he’s upset that half the time he does it himself. Although at times, especially when he’s super upset, I have to place my hands on his belly and say, “c’mon buddy, breathe into my hands,” and we get there pretty fast.
His breathing slows, he can speak and tell me what’s happened (because sometimes they get upset so quickly you don’t know what the hell happened therefore resolving the issue proves difficult!) and he gains his composure far more quickly than if I’m simply giving him a hug.
Depending on what it is that’s upsetting him too, sometimes it takes longer for him to calm down than other times (they’re not so different to us grown ups!). In those times a little more patience and time is involved on my part and occasionally he also falls back into getting upset all over again.
That’s when I ask him to look into my eyes and breathe into my hands. By making eye contact, I feel that he knows I am there for him, connected to him, ready to help and he instantly becomes more present and locked into me and less consumed by what has upset him, be it an injury or a classic tantrum. If it’s the latter, I still like to use this technique, even if he’s being a bit bratty. We are big on communication in our household and I’m sure we can all agree, no one can communicate efficiently with any human that’s losing their mind. (as a side-note – it’s great to also use this technique to calm yourself if you’re a tad bit peeved with said child – another reason why doing it with them is good – you both win!)
So once we’ve calmed him (and sometimes ourselves) down, if there is something we need to discuss together that’s serious like bad behaviour, we know it will have more impact and he can understand us better if we are all collectively calm and focused. What has been beautiful to watch is River’s little sister, Rosie, two, adapt this technique as well.
I started trying teach her this exercise about six months ago. Knowing how effective it was, I thought it would be a good idea for her to adopt it sooner rather than later. Like with most things though, your kids will only be ready when they’re ready. She was kind of getting the hang of it but she was perhaps still a bit too young to comprehend it.
But I do remember clear as day, the first time she did it properly.
She had fallen over in the hallway on her knees just outside River’s bedroom door and she was crying. Before I could get to her, River was with her. As I approached them, I stopped in my tracks. He helped her to her feet, then knelt down next to her, placed his hands on her tummy and said; “It’s okay baby. Just take deep breaths into my hands.” And just like that, she stopped crying and started taking big belly breaths into his hands. I know – cue heart explosion and proud parent moment! I truly hope that it will become a great life lesson and tool for both of them moving forward.
Like with many things, sometimes you give them a go and they work for you, sometimes they won’t. But I encourage you to at least give it a try.