Every child encounters stress in their lives. For children on the autism spectrum, the flood of sensory input and other challenges can seem overwhelming. The more we can teach our children to learn coping skills, the better they will be at navigating life’s hurdles.
A key is mindfulness and slow breathing.
In evolutionary terms, breathing is tightly connected with our fight-or-flight response. If our breathing gets quick and shallow, it triggers a cascade of hormones and actions within our entire body. Our body assumes we’re about to be eaten by a saber-tooth tiger. It responds to match.
What we want to do is train our body to calm. When the body senses long, slow, deep breaths, it activates our healing systems. It lowers stress and relaxes us. So simply by changing our breathing, we change how our body is working.
This is a powerful thing to teach children. Heck, it’s powerful for adults, too.
Give The Breaths a Name
Children often love personalizing and naming things. So think up a name for these breaths that your child will love. Maybe Superhero breaths. Unicorn breaths. Princess breaths. Spiderman breaths. Whatever they connect to.
Try to practice them once or twice a day. You can tie it into your bedtime routine. Maybe you do it when you’re out for a walk. The key is to make it normal and natural. The more it is a part of your life, the more easily it will be to latch onto it when a stressful situation comes up.
Be warm and gentle about it. “Let’s do some unicorn breaths! They bring us luck!” Or if they’re stressful about entering a store, “Let’s do some superhero breaths! They create a magic protective shield!” Strive to make it a positive wording. Avoid negative words like “they keep away the bad emotions”. Strive to always phrase positively.
Then, together, take in a long, deep breath. Let it fill your upper chest, mid chest, and lower abdomen. Let the lower abdomen fluff out like a balloon. This is good to practice lying down. Then you can see the belly rising. That’s great to do as a bedtime practice.
Then blow the air out, out, releasing it from your body. You can do it soft or gentle, or you can do it hard, like you’re blowing out a candle. You can even try different ones at different times.
Do three or four cycles of this. The mere act of breathing slowly triggers those relaxation circuits of the body. It’s all built in to our biology.
Avoid making this a punishment. Avoid a scenario of “You’re acting up, I want you to breathe.” Make it a reward. “I know you’re feeling fear about the dog – let’s take some superhero breaths and build up our power!”
I’ll also note, always strive to refer to emotions as a “feeling” rather than something they “are”. Avoid saying “you are afraid” – it makes it a part of them. Say instead, “You’re feeling afraid” – it’s a temporary emotion which can and will leave at some point.
The more you practice, the more it becomes a part of your life!
I also recommend actual meditation for parents. A daily meditation practice can do wonders for your stress levels and calm.