Don’t Tell Me to Breath! How Parents of Teens Can Help Lower Anxiety In Their Kids

Deep breath…here comes the truth. I’ve been a Child and Adolescent Therapist for over ten years and have talked to hundreds of tweens, teens, and parents about the power of taking deep breaths to calm their nervous system.

That is a fact.

What’s also true is that I struggle to practice what I preach–I have often doubted the power of breath work and either consciously or unconsciously poo-pooed the idea that taking a deep breath can actually help.

Or at least, that it would actually help me. I believed in the power of deep breathing to calm stress for others but struggled to apply the skill myself.

Maybe because, like a lot of us, by the time I get to where someone might say to me “You need to take a deep breath!”, it’s a bit too late. Worse, the thought of being told to ‘just breathe,’ when I’m elevated actually agitates me more.

Why Breathing Is So Effective At Lowering Anxiety

But here’s the thing. It’s not ‘just moving air in and out of my lungs.’ Breathing is like a superpower or master control switch panel: When we manage our breath, we have the power to regulate multiple body functions.

For example, we can make our heart actually beat more slowly just by taking a long, deep breath. And when our heart rate slows, all these other magical things fall into place inside of us:

  • Our blood pressure lowers,
  • Our lung capacity increases,
  • Our brains fill with more oxygenated blood, and
  • Our muscles relax.

And, when these four things happen, our rational brain comes back online and we can think. Our nervous system calms, and we are no longer stuck in a reactive, hyper aroused state, which is hard on our overall health and functioning, especially when prolonged.

How Breathing Calms Our Nervous System

So what, exactly, is going on inside our bodies when we breathe and why does it work to lower anxiety?

It’s a complex answer and, although I’m not a medical doctor, hours of training on how to treat anxiety disorders has made me want to know more about what is actually happening inside of us.

I’ve learned that regulating our bodies in response to stress is a balancing act between two parts of the nervous system, the parasympathetic and sympathetic.

The Parasympathetic Nervous System

The Parasympathetic Nervous System is responsible for “rest and digest” activities within our bodies; basically, any bodily function (e.g. digesting, peeing) that requires energy. Its job is to conserve energy for these tasks. When this part of our nervous system is online, our body systems are regulated to a calm setting, leading to emotions like contentment. When our Parasympathetic Nervous System is leading the way, we have the ability to access our rational, thinking brain.

A core part of the Parasympathetic Nervous System is the Vagus Nerve, which runs from the brainstem to the abdomen. And what’s so interesting is that breathing is a direct link to getting this part of our nervous system to take charge; when we breathe intentionally and deeply, the Vagus Nerve is activated and provides more oxygen to the abdomen, and then to the rest of our body.

The Sympathetic Nervous System

When we are stressed, we have several automatic body responses, responses that ‘just happen’ without any thought:

  • Our muscles get tense
  • Our heart rate quickens, and
  • Our breath gets faster and more shallow.

These are clues that the antithesis of the Parasympathetic Nervous System is being activated: the Sympathetic Nervous System.

The Sympathetic Nervous System activates the ‘flight or fight’ response in humans. It’s the one that kept us safe from saber-toothed tigers. Or the one that gives us that extra kick of energy and adrenaline to pull our kid back onto the sidewalk and out of harm’s way when they step into on-coming traffic.

It also gets activated when stress is high, remains high, and eventually, something happens in our daily routine that pushes us over the threshold from stressed to distressed.

This is when panic attacks, screaming fits to the point of not remembering what was said, and all-around-meltdowns occur.

In these moments of overwhelm and distress, if we breathe intentionally and deeply, we can trigger the parasympathetic nervous system and start to calm down, feel better, and think rationally.

Anxiety Disorders On the Rise In Youth

Understanding how the Parasympathetic and Sympathetic Nervous Systems function in relation to breathing is important because, according to Mental Health America, anxiety disorders are among the most common mental illnesses found in teens; four out of ten upper elementary and middle school students and HALF of all high school students could meet criteria for a clinical diagnosis of an anxiety disorder.

Part of these growing numbers could be because of an increased awareness about mental health and less stigma throughout society about having a mental health problem like anxiety.

Young people today actually have the words to describe what they are experiencing and the courage to say: “I think I’m anxious.”

But it’s also real that your kids are dealing with lots of stressors: social media, a news cycle that never stops, incidences of public violence like school shootings, and the Pandemic.

Stress during the tween and teen years is real. And if you are like most parents, you want to make it better (or at least less worse) for them.

For practical ways to help and support your kid with anxiety, you can check out my post, Building Positive Mental Health With Your Tween or Teen from earlier this month, where I talk about not only breathing, but other ways to help.

Some Stress Is Necessary

But the goal is not to strive for a world where we eliminate stress completely for our tweens and teens. A healthy dose of stress can be helpful. It can motivate us, lead us to take action, and result in adaptive changes being made in our lives.

Stress is also a necessary part of learning to manage responsibilities, function well under pressure, and recognize when we need a break or ask for help.

But too many of our tweens and teens are not recovering from an activated, hyper-aroused state of regulation and are ending up not just nervous, worried, or stressed but anxious in that way that leads to health concerns and problems in daily functioning.

Help Lower Anxiety In Tweens and Teens

We aren’t going to solve global warming, stop all the wars, or make social media and its potential harms go away. Not today at least. But one thing we can do to help our kids build their resilience and rebound from stress is…breathe.

When we (as caregivers, role models, and support systems) engage in activities or habits that get our own Parasympathetic Nervous System back online, we help the young people in our lives do the same.

This is important because…there is a connection between anxious caregivers and anxious kids.

It makes sense: how I handle stress (the good, the bad, and the ugly) is a model for my own children. And I’ll be the first to admit, there have been many-a-time when I needed to calm down (cue Taylor Swift).

But if you are like me (sometimes a good role model but not ALWAYS one) it’s never too late to start a new habit–like using breath work to calm worry, stress, and anxiety.

Remember that superpower I mentioned earlier? We need to practice accessing it when stress is LOW so that we can use breathing when stress is HIGH.

Teach Breathing To Your Anxious Tween or Teen

Many of you reading this may already have an intentional routine around breath work that includes yoga, meditation, martial arts, or other practices. Eastern traditions like Buddhism and Taoism have understood the power of the breath to regulate our nervous system and become a healing force for fighting disease since–well, A VERY LONG TIME (6th Century B.C. says one source).

If you have embraced and understood the power of deep breathing to control anxiety for a while then…keep reading. If you’re like me and at the beginning phases of this process, also keep reading.

Teaching these practices to anxious tweens and teens has the power to change society by slowing us all down, even just by a couple seconds.

Oftentimes, the best way to teach or support teens is to model the habit ourselves. Or, include them in the routine in a way that does not feel pushy or like you are imposing an idea onto them.

I like to talk out loud about how I’m using a breath to calm myself, often in a playful or somewhat silly way.

For example: the whole carton of orange juice crashes to the floor and I smile and say: “It’s cool–I’m taking three deep breaths right now.”

Without the three breaths, everyone knows that I might have added to the mayhem by stressing out over the mess.

Not that breathing stops us from having real reactions as parents or that it makes us calm and ‘groovy’ all the time. No, instead, our goal is to model for our kids how breathing helps during stressful moments.

Consider making yourself a personal ‘Breathing Plan.’ It can be a written plan like mine or thought through in your mind, ready for when the right moment arrives.

It’s all about forming healthy habits so that we can be there more for our kids. Or–so that we can be there for ourselves.

A Breathing Plan Example

The secret for starting a new habit or routine is to identify when, where, and how you will do the thing. It’s helpful to practice a calming strategy (like breathing) when stress is low, so that we can create new neural pathways for how we respond and apply this to high stress moments.

And so, I’m diving in and I invite you to do the same with me.

Here’s my plan for taking time to breathe. I hope it inspires you to make one for yourself and share strategies with the young person in your life.

Breathing Plan

  1. Morning Breathing: I’m going to spend 2-3 minutes each morning just breathing–in through my nose–out through my mouth–without really counting or thinking about it.
  2. Car Breathing: Before starting that engine, I’m going to take 3 deep breaths while counting: ”one, two”(inhale)…”one, two, three” (hold)…and “one, two, three, four” (exhale).
  3. Breathing App: Yay! I’m doing it. I’m downloading one of those apps I’ve told clients about for years. And I’m going to use it. There are tons out there including Calm, Breathwrk, and Simple Habit.

So wish me luck. And good luck on your own breathing journey AND your journey to support your anxious (or slightly stressed or worried) tween or teen.

If you know that your tween or teen is struggling with stress and worry and you aren’t sure how to help, Tween or Teen Therapy will help you find practical tools and strategies right away. I would be honored to help you and your tween or teen find a sense of calm and joy again.

To find the help you and your tween or teen deserve, follow these steps:

Contact Della Pope

Meet with Della and start building tools and strategies right away.