One of the most widely taught (and most effective) regulation skills taught? Deep breathing! Woo hooo! Exciting right?
Maybe I am the only one, but when I introduce the power of deep breathing to the young people I work with I am almost always met with an, um... underwhelming response.
Some say “I am always breathing aren’t I? Why do I have to learn to deep breathe?” Others say “If breathing helped I wouldn’t get dysregulated in the first place right?” Okay maybe they use words like upset/ticked off or something else when talking about it - but you get the idea!
OR we have the young people who come into our office who have heard it all before. They have tried “the deep breathing thing” and it hasn’t worked. When we ask them to demonstrate they miiiight take a shallow exhale where they fill up their chest and suck in their tummies. Yup, that breathing definitely will not work.
Okay, so here is where we as Play Therapists roll up our sleeves and combine the powers of deep breathing with the powers of play and get to work!
First and foremost I always feel like some quality neuroscience explaining how when we breathe deeply it calms our heart signaling to our body we aren’t in danger is key for buy in. I fully believe once young people understand WHY deep breathing is so effective (based in science) they are definitely more on board to practice and try.
Next it’s time to teach the HOW of deep breathing. Making sure that young people understand that their tummy should fill up on the inhale and get smaller on the exhale, with the top of their chest moving very little. Sometimes we can help young people do this by putting one hand on their chest and one on their tummy. As you breathe together help them notice which hand is moving in and out and make changes as necessary.
You can also have them give something a “tummy ride” or an “elevator ride” where the young person lays on their back and places on object on their tummy and watches it go up and down with breath!
Next, it’s time to make it fun! For one thing, young people learn better when they are having fun. Want to dive deeper into the neuroscience? Check out this article HERE!
Okay - now on to some fun and engaging activities to learn deep breathing!
Breathing With Bubbles
There are so many playful activities you can do with bubbles! One of my favorite things to do with them is practice those slow long deep breaths. You can get little mini-sized bottles of bubbles on Amazon or the party favor aisle of Target.
Some of my best tips for bubble blowing is to make sure you practice some inhales and slow and long exhales before starting the bubble blowing process. I always coach young people to fully exhale (even if they are out of bubbles) before blowing another round. Sometimes for these teaching moments it can be good to invest in a little more expensive bubble where the bubbles keep coming after the first blow!
Other props that can help with deep breathing? Feathers and pinwheels!
Breathing and Smelling Visualizations
Cooking breathing is a technique by Liana Lowenstein will make anyone hungry! In short you call up in your imagination a warm cookie fresh out of the oven. You can have the child pick which cookie flavor they want to breathe with for the day. First with your nose you smell all the cookie goodness (mine is chocolate chip!) and then blow out to cool the cookie down.
I like to put my hand out in front of me like I am holding the cookie flat to get more into it! Liana has the complete version HERE as well as a really fun game where you get to eat actual cookies! YUM!
Some other spins on this technique:
Breathing Like Animals
This video from Sanford Health takes you through how to breathe like a bunny, bumble bee, bear, lion, and crocodile! AND another tip to help with deep breathing - practice, practice, practice! I love when I can send parents a link so they have an easy way to practice at home!
You can pretty much use animals (and magical beings) for inspiration for many kinds of breath! Breathe in and blow out fire like a dragon! Breathe in and roar out like a lion!
Breathing With Movement
Sometimes it can be difficult for young people to pace how long they should breathe in and how long they should breathe out. For this reason getting really visual is important. Sometimes we can start with our hands at our sides (palms out) and raise them up over our heads on the inhale and lower them back down on the exhale.
Another way to get movement in with breath is a Hoberman Sphere. On the inhale expand the ball and make it large and on the exhale shrinking it back down!
With this technique you can imagine or physically trace with your finger shapes while you pace your breathing. Coping Skills for Kids has a free download HERE for four of my favorite types of tracing breathing:
Want to check out more ways to regulate? Check out these resources HERE and HERE!
What are your favorite ways to deep breathe with young people? Comment below!
Looking for more resources for regulation? Check out my training on Keep Calm and Regulate On: Play Therapy and the Neuroscience of Emotional Regulation!
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I'm Ann Meehan, an LPCC, RPT-S, and EMDR Consultant. I help other therapists grow in their passions as play therapists, trauma therapists,and child and adolescent therapists.