Belly Breathing to Calm Your Anxious Child

There are so many things that cause anxiety for children: a new place, new people, a stressor like the start of the school year, or an upcoming exam. Divorce, peer pressure, over-scheduled days, making a decision… they can all trigger anxiety in your child. In fact, about 25 percent of children ages 13 to 18 will experience anxiety at some point with about 6 percent suffering from severe anxiety disorder. While finding the root cause of your child’s stress is paramount to helping him, it’s important to find a way to help your child cope while he’s working through his troubles.

breathe to relieve anxietyOne way to help calm your child’s fears during a stressful situation is diaphragmatic breathing, or belly breathing. Children prone to anxiety tend to practice shallow thoracic breathing, which uses upper chest muscles rather than the diaphragm and can cause headaches, fatigue, cramps, and muscle tension. However, engaging the diaphragm with deep breaths gives your child the oxygen he needs in difficult times.

Research finds that most children 10 and older practice thoracic breathing regularly. This type of breathing is highly ineffective. Thoracic breathers tend to take 15 to 22 breaths for every five to eight breaths taken by belly-breathers. The shallow breaths deprive your child of carbon dioxide and can result in hyperventilation, which causes its own set of problems.

Not sure if your child is a thoracic or belly-breather? Conduct a small test to find out. Put your hand on your child’s stomach and ask him to breathe normally. If you find very little movement in his stomach as he inhales, chances are that he’s a thoracic breather.

Teaching your child to breathe with his diaphragm will help him calm his heart rate during stressful situations. And according to studies, deep breathing can be as effective in combating anxiety as the antidepressant imipramine.

So where do you start? One of the most important things to remember is that children will mimic what they see you do, so don’t just direct your child; practice the breathing exercises with him and he will learn that much faster. Follow these easy steps to get started:

  • Have your child place one hand on his chest and one on his belly, then imagine he is blowing up a balloon in his belly. Breathing in deeply through his nose, his belly should fully inflate and he should feel it inflate with his hand.
  • Tell your child to exhale out his mouth, making a “haa” sound.
  • Inhalations should last half as long as his exhale. So if he inhales for three seconds, his exhale should last six second. For older children, extend the time of the inhale and exhale.
  • Repeat until your child is relaxed, then practice up to three times a day until your child can engage in this strategy regularly.

There are many other ways to practice diaphragmatic breathing that are accessible through an Internet search. The important takeaway is to make sure your child knows how to calm himself during an anxious episode. While parents work hard to nurture and protect their children, the reality is that we won’t always be by our children’s side to remind them what to do. So the more you can make belly breathing a habit, the better prepared your child will be in the future.

Do you have some tricks that help your anxious child work through his feelings? We’d love to hear what else works!

National Institute of Mental Health  
Anxiety and Depression Association of America

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2 thoughts on “Belly Breathing to Calm Your Anxious Child”

  1. thanks so much for this article… I’m hoping to find or create a handout/poster on the different ideas for teaching breathing to children aged 3-6 years like belly breathing, pretending your finger is a candle/flower etc. I was wondering if you have one or are thinking of creating this a resource that could be purchased? Love your work

  2. oooops just saw your mindful minute cards… they look great but maybe for school aged kids? I am looking at the very early stages of teaching breathing… any help appreciated… thanks so much 🙂


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