Take a Breath: 5 Deep Breathing Exercises that Help Kids Get Calm

Photo by David Hume Kennerly
Photo by David Hume Kennerly

He took my truck! She hit me! NO! I DON’T WANT TO GO TO BED!

It’s no secret, kids can get mad…really mad. Learning to deal with feelings of frustration, anger, hurt, or disappointment can be a really big job for such a little person—but understanding how to navigate tough feelings is an essential part of growing up. Mindful breathing exercises for kids can really help with that.

That’s why our early childhood educators teach mindful breathing techniques to children who might be having a no-good-terrible-really-bad day (and don’t we all have bad days?). Breath work helps children build social-emotional and executive function skills: When kids use these techniques to express anger without hurting themselves (or others, or even things), they’re better able to stay focused in class and build good friendships.

“Breath work is a simple—and very powerful—tool that can help young children calm themselves when big feelings arise,” says Rashelle Hibbard, Manager of Teacher Preparation at KinderCare Education. “It’s very empowering for a child to be able to manage their own feelings, and I’m always so proud when I see a child use breath work to center themselves.”

Breathing calms children by slowing them down. Deep breathing exercises can literally slow a racing heart and help kids respond to stress in a healthier way (in fact, it works for everyone—adults, too). When hard feelings arise, try these four simple exercises to help your little one feel calmer. They’re as natural as breathing! Here’s how to get started:

1. Pick the Technique They Like Best

These exercises are full of imagery to harness active imaginations: think bunnies and snakes, flowers and candles. (No emptying the mind or focusing on mantras: We want kids to enjoy these exercises so that they use them!) Maybe they love hissing like a snake or they’re enchanted by smelling the flowers—feel free to adopt whichever approach is most inspiring to your little one. Use whenever needed and repeat until your child feels calm (or settled down enough to talk about their feelings).  

The Flower Breath: Imagine smelling a flower. Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth.  

The Bunny Breath: Take three quick sniffs through the nose and one long exhale through the nose. (As he starts to get the hang of it, have your little bunny focus on making the exhale slower and slower.)

The Snake Breath: Inhale slowly through the nose and breathe out through the mouth with a long, slow hissing sound.

Blow Out the Candle: Imagine a birthday candle. Take in a deep breath through the nose and then exhale through the mouth to blow out the candle.  

Smell the Rose/Blow Out the Candle: Combine the Flower Breath (on the inhale) with the Blow Out the Candle Breath (on the exhale), holding up your pointer finger to your nose as “you smell the rose,” and drop your finger to your mouth as you “blow out the candle.”

Photo by Dream Lover / Stocksy / 1490190
Photo by Dream Lover / Stocksy

2. Teach Breath Work Before They’ll Actually Need It

Introduce these ideas when your child is happy and calm (explaining Snake Breath mid-meltdown in the grocery store is not a recipe for success).

3. Practice Makes Perfect (and Keep It Fun)

Add the exercise they like best to play time. Maybe you draw cupcakes and blow out crayon candles, or spend time hopping around the house like bunnies—explain that it’s a lot of fun and that it’s also a good thing to do when they’re feeling bad, because it’ll help them to calm down.

4. How to Use It in the Moment

When tough feelings come, help them through their favorite breathing exercise with the following steps:

Connect: Get down to their level and connect. Try looking them in the eye or gently touching their shoulder.

Name the feelings: Sometimes big feelings like anger or disappointment can feel scary (even to grown-ups!), so acknowledge their big feelings to help them understand what’s happening. Try something like, “You look like you’re really upset,” or “You seem angry that your brother took your toy.”

Find a quiet space: Whether it’s a cozy spot in their bedroom or a café corner, a quiet space lets them step away from the situation and gives them a little bit of privacy to gather themselves and calm down.

Breathe together: Start doing the breathing exercise together. Help them by talking through each step: “Let’s blow out some birthday candles. Breathe in…and…out. Let’s do another one.”

Give them a comforting cuddle (if they’re ready): Some kids welcome a hug, but others may need a moment to settle down—follow your child’s cues and your own instincts.

Photo by Maa Hoo / Stocksy United / 982526
Photo by Maahoo Studio / Stocksy

5. Model Mindful Breathing Yourself

When you get angry or frustrated, try taking deep breaths—or use any of the techniques above. Explain what you’re doing simply by saying, “I am feeling really angry right now. I’m going to take some deep breaths to help me calm down before we talk more about this.” Your child is a keen observer, and when they see you using breathing to calm yourself, they’ll learn that this is a good way to manage big feelings.

It may take a little time, but eventually they’ll be able to do this all by themselves—and they may even start reminding you to breathe like a bunny when your temper wears thin in traffic!

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