When your child is feeling anxious, stressed, or overwhelmed, relaxing their body is one of the most helpful things you can do. When someone’s emotions are extremely high, their body acts differently than it does when they’re feeling calm. Muscles become tense, which can cause aches, pains, and headaches. Heart rate speeds up. Breathing becomes shallow and fast. The stomach tightens up, leading to stomachaches, nausea, loss of appetite, or diarrhea. Therefore, helping your child relax their body is one of the most important things you can do while they’re experiencing anxiety.
Here are three relaxation techniques for kids and teens that can help them relax their bodies when they are feeling anxious. (I actually teach these to clients of all ages, including kids, teenagers, and adults.) I recommend practicing these daily, so that they become familiar and habitual enough that the child will remember to use them during times of stress.
1. Deep Breathing
The goal of this activity is to teach your child to breathe slowly and deeply from their diaphragm. First, have your child lay on the floor. Or if you want, lay on the floor with them and do this together! Lying on the floor will make it easier for them to breathe from their diaphragm. Next, have them put their hand on the belly. Ask them to try to breathe in so that they lift their hand up. Their belly should expand and fill with air as they breathe in. Many times, when kids first try this, their chest rises instead of their belly. Make sure their chest stays fairly stable and their belly expands with air. When this occurs, they are breathing from their diaphragm.
After this step is mastered, have them count slowly to three as they breathe in, hold their breath for the count of three, and then slowly count to three as they breathe out. We want them to be breathing very slowly, particularly as they let the air out. Ask them to do this ten times in a row.
With younger children, you can have them pretend they are a balloon, and they are getting filled with air and then letting it out. You can even use an actual balloon to demonstrate what this looks like (and then play with when they’re done!)
Your child should practice this every day. It will be most beneficial if they practice doing this every time they start to feel stressed, anxious, or upset. Since it’s not always practical to lie down, have them practice standing up and sitting down once they have the feel for doing it when lying down.
2. Progressive Muscle Relaxation
The goal of this activity is to relax the muscles in the body, while teaching your child the difference between feeling tensed and feeling relaxed. First, have your child get in a comfortable position. Lying down is best. Next, have them close their eyes and breathe deeply. Ask them to just listen to what you say and follow along.
Start with saying “Tighten your hands into fists and squeeze them together as hard as you can. You could pretend like you’re squeezing a lemon and trying to get all the juice out. Hold this while I count to three: One, two, three. Now relax them completely! Let all that tightness out. Feel how differently your hands feel when they are relaxed compared to when they were tight.” You can repeat this twice if you want. Some kids find it most relaxing to do each body part twice.
Next, move to their feet. Follow the same script except instead of asking them to squeeze their hands, ask them to tighten their feet and curl their toes.
Go through the rest of the body parts, in the following order: feet, below the knees (calves), upper legs (thighs and glutes), stomach/abs (tummy), shoulders, arms, jaw/mouth, nose and cheeks, forehead. You can use the same basic script for each part, modifying it slightly to make sense or keep them entertained. When you finish, do this once more with the whole body. Have them tighten every single part of the body, then relax it.
For younger kids, you can make it fun and creative. For example, rather than saying “tighten the muscles in your nose and cheeks,” say something like “Pretend like a fly landed on your nose and try to get it off without using your hands” or “Squish your face down really small!”
Your child should practice this daily. Often, people like to practice this right before they go to bed because it helps their body calm down. In addition, they should use this technique when they start to feel stressed, anxious, or upset – at home or in school. The car can also be a good place to practice if they get anxious going to school or if they are anxious at the end of the school day.
The goal of this technique is to help your child feel calmer and happier in the middle of any situation. First, have your child close their eyes, get comfortable, and breathe deeply. Ask your child to imagine the most peaceful place they can think of. It could be somewhere real or imagined. Ask them to picture this place in their mind, as vividly as possible. Have them tell you what it is, so you know how to focus the questions you ask next. If they say it’s a sunny beach, your questions are going to be very different from if it’s a snowy mountain cabin. Ask them questions about it, helping them involve all five senses in their visualization. Here are some sample questions:
Sight: Look all the way around you, what do you see? What time of day is it? What colors are there? Can you see any other people or animals?
Sound: What do you hear? Do you hear any animals? Can you hear any nature sounds, such as water rushing?
Smell: What can you smell?
Touch: What is the weather like? What does the air feel like on your skin? What does the ground feel like on your feet?
Taste: What does the air taste like? Are you eating or drinking anything?
After asking these questions, have you child imagine this scene for a few minutes. Then talk with them about what it felt like while they were imagining this. For younger children, have them draw a picture of their place so that they can easily remember it. Again, this can be a helpful technique to practice daily and use when feeling stressed or worried.
After you teach your child each of these, talk with them about what it felt like during each one. Talk with them about which techniques would be most helpful for them in certain situations. For example, if they get nervous during school, they may want to use a different technique than if they’re having trouble falling asleep.