Breathing calm and joy into the Summer months
with Maya Castle, Breathwork Coach, in collaboration with Othership
With the arrival of Summer weather, feelings of possibility and optimism have blossomed as we continue to inch our way further from the pandemic of stressful stops and starts that the last few years had brought. Yet as the school year ends, children and teens are approaching another transition, albeit one that carries with it the promise of fun and freedom: Summer Break. And while ice cream and campfires are certainly experiences to joyfully anticipate, transitions, by their very nature, can elicit a wide variety of feelings in all of us: excitement, anxiety, and even sadness. For some children, leaving home for overnight camp may bring up some anticipatory anxiety and excitement. For others, shifting away from the predictability of their school routine, and saying goodbye to their teacher and classmates may bring with it some sadness. According to psychologist Dr. Stephen Porges, each child’s neuroception is unique and similar experiences may land differently with different kids. Some children may show signs of transition in the coming weeks. If you notice some irritability, emotional upheaval, or unusual behaviours that don’t seem in keeping with your kiddo’s usual way of being, the transition from the school year to summer break may be playing a part.
If you do notice signs of dysregulation or anxiety coming up for your kiddo, the following simple Breathwork exercises can serve as joyful co-regulatory tools in which you can engage with your children.
But first, what do we mean by co-regulation? And what is Breathwork?
In education and parenting circles, much has been made in recent years about children’s need to self-regulate or manage their emotions and reactions. In her new book “Brain-Body Parenting,” Dr. Mona Delahooke reminds us that this is a worthwhile aspiration so long as we keep in mind that self-regulation is a developmental skill that emerges in the context of loving co-regulation with trusted caregivers. In other words, we can better support our kiddos through the upcoming transition to summer break, or any transition for that matter, by doing Breathwork exercises with them than by having them engage in these practices alone. In lending children our calm and engaging in these practices, we strengthen their self-awareness and their capacity to self regulate over time.
Breathwork is an umbrella term for a wide range of active meditations in which we consciously shape our breathe to impact our autonomic nervous system. While there are a myriad techniques, each with distinct aims, they share a commonality: we intentionally shape our breathing pattern to achieve a desired outcome. Some Breathwork techniques energize; others calm; yet others invoke emotional and energetic release. Specifically, to support children who may be showing signs of anxiety or distress, we engage in Breathwork exercises that activate their diaphragm (think deep belly breathes). When we breathe slowly through the nose and deep into the belly over a period of time, we can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, that system of rest, repair and digest. When you child is engaged, flexible, cooperative and socially connected, they are in their “green pathway” - the ventral vagus pathway of their parasympathetic nervous system. And chances are that, when they’re in this state, their breathing is low to the belly and rhythmic, even if they aren’t aware of it.
Conversely, when we’re in a state of anxiety - commonly referred to as flight, fight and even fawn - our breathing tends to mirror our state by becoming shallow (or chest heavy) and quick. Think “ancestors running from a lion” type of breathing. The anxious anticipation of transitions can elicit the same pattern of shallow, quick breathing, signaling danger to the brain. Fortunately, by shaping our breathing we can gently bring ourselves back to feelings of safety and an ability to cope with what’s ahead.
The author's son practicing Breathwork techniques at home in Toronto.
Breathwork can gently and joyfully bring children back into balance. What’s more, it’s a playful and bonding practice. When we’ve been told to “take a deep breathe” we’re onto something - it’s a start. We need a few more than that to really feel a shift and the following exercises can be drawn upon to support children and tweens.
Parenting tip: I’d encourage you to introduce these practices to your children while they’re actually in a state of joyfulness and social engagement, which is the state of receptivity to learning something new. That way, the practices are more easily called upon during those SOS moments, as they’ve been embodied already.
Practice 1: The hand trace with morning affirmations
Invite your child to stretch out their fingers of one hand. With the index finger of their other hand, have them slowly trace around their thumb. They should breathe in as they trace up one side of the thumb, and breathe out as they trace down the other side. Then continue in this pattern: breathing in as they trace up the next finger, breathing out as they trace down the finger. Continue in this way for all the fingers, tracing up and breathing in, tracing down and breathing out.
I love this practice because it couples breathe, fine motor skills, touch and focus. It’s a lovely practice to establish a sense of calm alertness in the morning. It can be coupled with an intention for the day such as “I am ready for a great day” (my little one’s go to). If your child is anxious about the transition to summer break, these affirmations may support them after they have done a few rounds of the Hand Trace:
“I am safe”
“I can do hard things”
“I can handle it”
“When changes are coming, I can breathe to feel safe.”
“I am safe to feel all my feelings.”
“I can make a plan with my grown ups”
“My thoughts and feelings matter”
“I can talk back to my Mr. Worry”
The hand trace is a practice that can be drawn upon discreetly anywhere. For example, a friend recently shared that her child engages in this practice under his desk at school. Please see the little video below for how it works.
Practice 2: Rose Thorn Bud on the Othership app
Following an after school or after camp snack, we listen to this practice together. It provides a framework for reflection and often leads to a chat or the emptying out of the emotion backpack if needed. While listening we hash out the day, processing anything that may have come up, and giving it closure as we wind down for dinner. Sometimes I put out some play-doh to play with for sensory input so my little can listen and reflect without feeling on the spot. I would encourage you to engage in this practice quite a while before bedtime as that will give ample time for emptying the emotional backpack, relishing in the memory of joyful moments or accomplishments from the day, problem solving, giving closure, and looking forward to the following day before settling for bed.
Othership is a guided breathwork app offering classes to boost mood, increase productivity, regulate your emotions, and learn the science-backed how + why of breathing mechanics.
Practice 3: Settling for Bed with Taking the Stuffy for an Elevator Ride At Bedtime
Taking the Stuffy for an Elevator Ride is our favourite Breathwork practice to couple with affirmations. Once my little one settles in for bed, we turn off the lights and begin this practice as I tuck him in:
Step 1: He squeezes all his muscles and scrunches up his face and then releases, melting into his bed like a snowman
Step 2: He breathes in his first favourite colour deep into his belly and exhales his least favourite colour
Step 3: He breathes in his second favourite colour deep into his belly, and exhales his second least favourite colour
Then, invite your child to choose their favourite stuffy, and pick one too. Lie on your backs side by side and place the stuffy on your bellies. As you breathe in through the nose and the belly fills up with air, invite your child to notice how the stuffy goes up for a ride on their belly elevator. As your child exhales through their nose, invite them to notice the stuffy come down on their elevator belly as their belly empties of air. If possible, do this for the duration of a song they love, preferably a calming song. Alternately, begin gently by doing this 10 times. The goal is to activate belly breathing awareness to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and prepare for rest. At the end, invite your little one to give their stuffy a hug. Then invite them to hug themselves and draw on an affirmation. This is the list my little one has come up with (the list just keeps growing over time, which I welcome):
I am safe
I am loved
I am kind
I am smart
I am helpful
The whole world loves me
I love the whole world
I love myself
(My little has given me permission to share these with you.)
While varied in their nature, all these Breathwork practices involve 4 things:
1. Nasal breathing in and out
2. Belly breathing
4. Love and joy
If nothing else, sit side by side, hand in hand, taking deep belly breathes. By promoting breathe awareness, you’re planting the seeds of a practice that can benefit your child for years to come.
If you’ve ever found yourself ironically yelling “calm down!” or “take a deep breath!” to your child, you know that these words likely don’t have the desired effect. We now know our children’s neurophysiological pathways and nervous systems reflect our own and so being regulated ourselves is the most effective way to support our children. Yet of course, modern day living coupled with the stressors of the last few years mean that many parents are understandably living in a state of “fight or flight.”
This is where the beautiful practice of Breathwork can supports us, too.
The following guided Breathwork recommendations for busy parents can be drawn upon alone or engaged with alongside your little one, too. They are accessible to brand new practitioners and experienced Breathworkers.
Setting the tone for the day:
Practice 1: Lovely Day on the Othership app
I engage in this practice alongside my little one as he dances to Bill Withers and we sing along. It’s an energizing, upbeat practice that is accessible to those new to Breathwork.
Practice 2: Heart Beat Breath on the Othership app
As I wait in the car to pick up my son, I often wonder what his day might have been like. I consider all the academic and social demands that he may have navigated and all the potential joys and messiness that comes with a typical school or camp day. I use these minutes as I wait to ground myself and set an intention to be attuned and present to whatever he may need from me as he comes into the car. I have found the following session to be short, sweet, and effective in helping me to ground.
Practice 3: Goodnight Mind on Othership app
Deliberately shaping our breathe to activate our parasympathetic nervous system before we go to bed increases the probability of a good night’s sleep which, let’s face it, makes everything easier to handle during the busy day of parenting. The following guided Breathwork session is a beautiful invitation towards restorative sleep.
And at the end of the day, my fellow conscious parents, if nothing else, please hold yourself in compassion: humaning is hard, parenting is hard. So remember, when you can, to breathe in, breathe out, and invite your little ones to join you.
We've teamed up with our friends at Othership to bring you a series of short breathwork exercises for kids + parents. Check out the first video in that series above and check back every Friday on @minimioche & @othership.app for more!