Relaxation Techniques for Kids: Benefits, Examples & Resources
Anxiety disorders among young people are reaching epidemic proportions. The Child Mind Institute reports that 31.9% of adolescents in the U.S. will meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder by the time they reach the age of 18:
- 3% will have a specific phobia
- 8% will experience social anxiety
- 6% will suffer from separation anxiety
- 0% will have post-traumatic stress disorder
- 3% will have panic disorder
- 2% will be diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder
The detrimental impacts of stress and anxiety on children and adolescents extends far beyond childhood. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics and reported on 2 Minute Medicine found that nearly half the 7.7 million children in the U.S. who suffer from a treatable mental health disorder receive no treatment for the illness. Psychology Today points out that teens whose anxiety disorders are not treated have a higher risk of addiction and substance abuse, as well as poor scholastic performance and social interactions.
Anxiety, nervousness, agitation, and other mental health conditions in children and adolescents are often difficult to diagnose and treat. However, teaching kids relaxation techniques and other methods of recognizing and reducing stress has proven to be helpful in addressing these health concerns. The tips and resources presented in this guide are intended to help children, parents, and teachers to minimize the negative effects that stress and anxiety can have on young people.
Benefits of Relaxation Techniques for Kids
When we sense a threat or danger, our bodies respond by entering a state that child therapist Kirrilie Smout of Developing Minds calls “physiological arousal”: The effect can be slight, such as a tension headache, or severe, causing hyperventilation, a rapid heartbeat, and muscle rigidity. In children, the physiological response may cause shouting or an inability to talk. The key is that the fight, flight, or freeze response to perceived threats is the same whether the danger is real (encountering a menacing dog, for example) or imagined (such as believing a departing parent will never return).
The first step in addressing anxiety in children is making parents and young people aware of the physical effects of feeling distressed, frustrated, anxious, or angry. These are among the short-term impacts of high stress levels in children:
- Their thinking becomes muddled.
- It becomes more difficult for them to communicate.
- Their ability to remember complex concepts is diminished.
The long-term impact of chronic stress and anxiety on children and adolescents has the potential to be much more serious:
- They are more likely to suffer from chronic headaches, stomachaches, and muscle soreness.
- Their healthy sleep patterns are interrupted.
- Untreated mental health disorders hinder children’s emotional growth and transition to adulthood. (Michigan Medicine)
The tragedy of undiagnosed mental health conditions in children is compounded by the fact that in most cases, the conditions can be treated effectively by teaching young people relaxation techniques and other behavioral approaches. These methods help children recognize the situations that trigger their anxiety and minimize the impact when they begin to feel stressed.
The use of relaxation to reduce physiological tension goes back more than 100 years to psychologist Edward Jacobsen’s progressive relaxation technique, which involves tensing and then relaxing each muscle group in the body. Several variations on progressive relaxation have been developed over the years, including deep breathing and mindfulness. In addition, the age-old practices of meditation and yoga have been adapted to promote relaxation as an antidote to stress and anxiety in children and adults.
Relaxation techniques have proven to be effective: Developing Minds states that practicing any form of relaxation for one minute or more lowers a child’s heart rate, breathing rate, skin temperature, and muscle tension. The effect has been noted in children as young as kindergarten age. Most importantly, any relaxation method that slows a child’s breathing and reduces muscle tension is “equally helpful,” according to the site.
In the long term, relaxation techniques for kids improve their overall well-being, ability to handle pain, overall concentration, and ability to fall asleep at night. They also reduce anxiety and aggressive behavior in children and improve their social skills, problem-solving abilities, emotional stability, and academic performance.
Examples of Kids’ Relaxation Techniques and Activities
It is important for parents and teachers to learn how to spot children who are feeling high levels of stress and anxiety, but the most effective way to address the problem is by teaching children to recognize the symptoms of the conditions as they begin to experience them. This enables young people to adopt strategies to combat the symptoms before they can cause damage.
A useful approach for instructing children on how to recognize these and other negative feelings is via visuals that represent anxiety, frustration, sadness, and other emotions. For example, the free Emotionary app for iOS is one of 15 mindfulness and relaxation apps for children described by Parenting Chaos. The program presents children with icons representing five primary emotions and defines them very simply to help children to identify the emotion they are currently feeling.
One of the suggestions made by the Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation for teaching children to recognize various emotions is to help them to make paper plate “feeling faces” that represent different feelings, including apprehension, distress, and disappointment, and then pair photographs of real children experiencing those emotions with each plate.
Here are several relaxation techniques that have proven effective in helping children and adolescents manage stress and anxiety.
Deep Breathing Exercises
Among the simplest, most-effective relaxation techniques for kids is mindful breathing, as Childhood 101 explains. Teaching children to take slow, deep breaths helps to calm them physically and mentally. It also forces children to stop and think about how they are feeling right now, so they can take a step back from overwhelming emotions. The site offers eight free printable breathing exercise cards (as a PDF download) that describe various breathing styles:
- Back-to-back breathing. This style entails sitting on the floor back to back with another child. One child starts to take slow, deep breaths, and the other child tries to match the first child’s breathing.
- Tummy breathing. This style has children lie on the floor with a stuffed animal on their stomachs. The children breathe in and out slowly as they imagine rocking the animal to sleep as it rises and falls.
- Elephant breathing. This style is done standing with feet spread wide and arms dangling forward like an elephant’s trunk. The child breathes in slowly through the nose, bringing arms up and over the head, and then exhales slowly through the mouth, bringing the arms down again.
- Bubble breathing. This style has children sit comfortably and imagine they are holding a bubble wand. They breathe in slowly and then breathe out as they would if they were blowing bubbles filled with peace, love, and happiness that soon fill the entire room.
- Balloon breathing. This style is similar to bubble breathing, but the children place their hands around their mouths as if they were blowing up a big balloon, slow breath by slow breath. When the balloon is bigger than they can hold, they release it, swaying gently from side to side as they do.
- Shoulder roll breathing. This style starts with children sitting comfortably. They take a slow breath through the nose, raising their shoulders as they do, and lower the shoulders as they exhale through the mouth, repeating the actions with several slow breaths.
- Take 5 breathing. This style also begins with children sitting comfortably but with one hand stretched out in front of them like a star and the pointer finger of the other hand ready to trace the outstretched hand. As they breathe in, they trace the outside of the thumb, and as they exhale, they trace the inside, repeating a breath in and out for the inside and outside of each finger.
- Bumblebee breathing. This style is done by children putting the tips of their pointer fingers in their ears and closing their eyes as they sit comfortably. They breathe in slowly through the nose and hum quietly as they breathe out.
Meditation and Yoga
Meditation is a discipline that few children are able to master, as the site DoYouYoga explains. However, children are able to benefit tremendously from activities that are based on the principles of meditation. The site describes 14 meditative yoga exercises that have been shown to be effective in reducing stress levels in children as young as preschool age. Here are brief descriptions of several of the techniques.
- Third Eye Yoga Diamond. Children lie down, and a small stone or crystal is placed on their foreheads. They are instructed to focus on the item, imagining its colors, its weight, whether it feels warm or cold, and other characteristics. The stone is magical, filled with calmness and relaxation that seeps into their bodies slowly as they breathe deeply.
- Silent Bell. Children sit in a circle, knee to knee, and a bell is passed around the circle. Each child rings the bell in turn and listens to the sound it makes. Then the children pass the bell around the circle carefully and slowly so that it does not make a sound. This helps quiet the children, so they are ready for other relaxation exercises.
- Sleeping Elves and Fairies. This exercise requires quiet music and imaginary magical fairy dust. The children rest in Child’s Pose as someone taps them gently on the back to deliver the fairy dust that helps them stay perfectly still. The goal is to see which child can lie still the longest.
- Finding Our Center. The children can be sitting or standing as they lean slightly to the left, then to the right, then backward, and then forward until they find the spot where they feel most balanced. Once they have found their center, they close their eyes and imagine the center running from their feet, up their spines, and to the top of their heads.
The connection between exercise and improved mental health has been difficult to document scientifically, as health psychology researcher Amanda Rebar explains on Les Mills’ fitness blog Fit Planet. Rebar states that claims of exercise releasing endorphins in the brain that improve a person’s mood have been thoroughly debunked. However, she believes that many different mechanisms are at work that cause people to feel less anxious after they exercise, some of which are neurophysiological and some psychological.
For example, exercise can improve a child’s mood simply by taking the child’s mind off whatever was causing the anxiety. In particular, activities that promote social interactions, such as team sports, help reduce stress and anxiety. People of all ages often feel less anxious after they take a walk, especially when they do so with friends. Rebar notes that taking a walk with friends will be more beneficial to reducing a child’s stress than spending time with them while sedentary.
Yoga Journal describes the many benefits of yoga for children’s physical and mental health. In addition to enhancing young people’s “flexibility, strength, coordination, and body image,” yoga improves their concentration and ability to remain calm and relaxed. The YogaKids program developed by yoga instructor Marsha Wenig combines yoga with storytelling, games, music, language, and art. The program’s goal is to “engage the ‘whole child’” by using ecology, anatomy, nutrition, and “life lessons” based on the yoga concepts of oneness, interdependence, and fun.
One of the biggest obstacles to preventing anxiety and stress in small children is their inability to recognize and describe their emotions. Many negative emotions are “abstract concepts,” as The Mindful Word explains, so it is difficult for children to grasp frustration, disappointment, grief, and anxiousness. A popular technique for introducing children to mindfulness is guided imagery, which uses visualization and imagination to make children more aware of the connection between what they are thinking and how they are feeling physically.
Children are “guided” into a story and encouraged to use their imagination to put themselves in the situation described in the story. When a child imagines being in a positive situation, the body releases biochemicals based on those feelings. The technique has been shown to be effective in treating children experiencing sleep problems, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
Other Mindfulness Activities
Mindfulness proponent Eckhart Tolle said that “we all think too much, seek too much, want too much, and forget about the joy of just being.” As PositivePsychology.com reports, mindfulness has been shown to help children overcome bullying, improve their ability to focus, enhance their attentiveness, develop social skills, and simply feel better about themselves in general.
Among the mindfulness techniques that are effective in helping children with anxiety is mindful posing, in which children find a space where they feel safe, and then they are asked to pose like a positive character, such as Superman or Wonder Woman. After several attempts at imitating the poses and then being asked how they feel, the children are likely to report feeling absolutely “super.”
Drawing and Coloring
The act of coloring or drawing has a calming effect on most children, as noted in the prevalence of crayons and coloring pages that restaurants provide for their young patrons. The site Stress Free Kids looks deeper into the reasons for this phenomenon: The back-and-forth motion of the crayon on the paper is soothing and reduces anxiety; and children are able to focus on the activity because they want to do the best they can, but they do not feel pressured as they may when completing a school assignment or a chore at home.
Certain colors can trigger a calm feeling in children, making them behave better and improving their focus. Coloring is also one of the easiest ways to introduce children to mindfulness because the activity is closely associated with meditation: It helps stop the “brain chatter” that interrupts novice meditators, and it has been shown to slow children’s heart rates and improve neurological responses due to the repetition and concentration on patterns and detail.
Resources for Kids’ Relaxation Techniques
An abundance of resources are designed to help parents introduce their children to the benefits of relaxation for their mental and physical well-being. These sites and services help parents, teachers, and children to develop strategies to conquer anxiety and manage their stress levels.
Online and Digital Resources
A great challenge in teaching kids relaxation techniques is translating the short-term benefits of relaxation into long-term strategies that children can apply in new, stressful situations as they arise. Developing Minds lists five recommendations for ensuring the long-term success of relaxation training for children:
- Make sure children and teens understand why it is important to relax their bodies to calm their minds.
- Teach young people relaxation techniques they can apply in a minute or less as well as methods that require more time as their attention spans increase.
- Focus on relaxation techniques that are simple as well as effective.
- Introduce children to relaxation exercises while they are calm rather than when they are agitated.
- Remind children to apply the relaxation techniques as the symptoms of stress and anxiety first start to appear.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America provides a fact sheet about the impact of anxiety disorders on children and adults. The fact sheet points out that anxiety disorders in children sometimes co-occur with eating disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and depression.
Resources for Schools
Several dozen ideas that teachers and school administrators can use to integrate relaxation techniques into their instruction are described by the Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation. For example, teachers can take every opportunity to help their students “label their own emotions” by pointing out times when they are upset and asking what might make them feel better. Teachers can also ask their students to look into each other’s faces and describe how they think the other student is feeling.
The teacher support site We Are Teachers offers 10 tips designed to help teachers reduce anxiety and stress levels in their students. In addition to the standard advice to teach breathing exercises and take physical activity breaks, the site recommends talking openly with students about the prevalence and detrimental effects of anxiety, having students create gratitude journals describing the things they are thankful for, and creating a space in the classroom where students can freely express their anxiety.
Resources for Parents
It can be difficult for parents to recognize the symptoms of stress and anxiety in their children. The education site Understood describes how to spot indications of anxiety in children, many of which are less than obvious. For example, children can exhibit grouchiness on occasion for any reason or for no particular reason at all. However, certain recurring physical symptoms may indicate the effects of stress in children, including stomachaches and headaches, refusing to eat or use the bathroom at school, restlessness and distraction, and difficulty sleeping.
NBC News presents an after-school routine designed to minimize the stress students feel when confronted with difficult homework. Among the principles of the routine are to make the work predictable; find an organized, distraction-free space to work in; begin the homework session with a five-minute mindfulness exercise; create and print a homework schedule; and break large projects into manageable components.
Psychology Today highlights the importance of parents devising a “coaching strategy” for their children who are affected by stress and anxiety that builds on small initial improvements in the children’s behavior. For example, a teen who was almost completely immersed in video games was slowly weaned off the habit with the help of the family physician who commented on the teen’s poor physical shape and lack of exercise. After the teen began an exercise routine, his mother was able to introduce limits on screen time, and ultimately convinced him to join a study group of friends preparing for the SAT.
Perhaps the most important thing parents can do to combat anxiety and stress in their children is to maintain strong mental health themselves and consult with mental health professionals when necessary. By ensuring that they are providing their children with a nurturing, healthy home environment, parents create a space where their children can put their newly learned relaxation techniques into practice.