Teaching Little Ones About BIG Emotions – Deep Breathing

Emotions are big! Emotions can be hard! And emotions can be scary! This is both true for many adults, youth, and children. Although this information is just as important for adults I am writing this post today for all those parents, professionals, or community members who work and interact with children on a regular basis. I write this blog series as a mom of a 3 year old (three-nager), one year old, and as a social worker in elementary schools. I will continue to write many more posts on children and emotions in the future as it is such a big topic and so so important.

quote-photo big emotions

Have you ever thought as an adult or youth that you wish you better understood and coped with emotions? Well, it may be that as a child you didn’t learn the skills needed to handle these big emotions. The good news is you can learn them now and you can teach them to your children!

As you know from my blog on the brain, (Here-part 1 and Here-part 2), when kids are stressed their amygdala’s are going off and they are no longer able to think, problem solve, or learn. Their little bodies need direction and guidance and a toolbox full of coping mechanisms, and deep breathing is a great first tool! Deep breathing works when you are sad, anxious, scared, and angry. Why does it work so great? Because deep breathing slows down our systems and allows our body to turn to a calm state and ‘tap out’ of that fight, flight, or freeze response that ‘Amy’ sends us into to. This in turn allows your child’s brain to return to accessing their prefrontal cortex (Olly).

Have you ever got in an argument with a toddler in which you ended up both screaming at each other and maybe one or both of you were crying and you have no idea how it all escalated that far? I have! My 3 year old daughter is strong willed and very smart. The ‘event’ started by her asking for candy. I said no because it was almost lunch she screamed ‘no i want candy now… I’m starving!” I reminded her calmly the answer is no and went on to try to explain why she can’t have candy before lunch. However while I was deep into my explanation she continued to yell over top of me that she wanted candy. By this time we were both getting very frustrated. She reaches over and hits me. I raise my voice and tell her she needs to go to a time out. She raises her voice and says NO. I continue to tell her to go sit on a chair and start a lecture on why she can’t hit. She starts crying and begrudgingly sits on the chair. I am now crying and lunch is burnt. Both of us are experiencing an amygdala hijack. Both of us are exhausted and feeling depleted. We should have just taken a breath!

We started to teach our daughter the importance of deep breathing. We taught her the STOP, BREATHE, THINK Strategy. We taught her how to stop herself by saying ‘stop’ or timeout then encouraging her to take a deep breath (different techniques HERE) so she can slow her body down and think before responding (or hitting). We often do it together!

She also uses deep breathing if she is having trouble falling asleep or if she is crying because she is sad or hurt. We invite her to take some deep breaths so she can slow her body down and get herself to a place where she is able to communicate what she needs. Helping kids to express their needs in a healthy way is a great life long skill.

My daughter took to her new skill pretty well. Of course she needs reminding, encouraging and mirroring as she is only 3 years old. However, there are days when she also encourages me! A couple days before Christmas we were wrapping a delicate present together. It was a challenging gift to wrap as there were parts that were hollow. We were just about done when my daughter randomly poked the wrapped gift putting a whole right through the paper. I filled instantly with anger as I was already feeling really frustrated by this challenge. My eyes went big and I was about to yell and probably say something I would regret. Instead, my 3 year old saw my big eyes and pained face and said in a soft sweet voice, “mama, I think you need to take a deep breath” so together we took a deep breath and neither of us lost our cool. She saved my amygdala from going off. We talked it out. She apologized for poking it, I acknowledged it was an accident and we fixed it together. Like I said before, although this post is written for parents with children deep breathing is a skill for all of us to learn!         

Although I believe I have experiences and a skill set that gives me a platform from which I can share these strategies and suggestions I also recognize that sometimes there is a greater impact when it comes from children themselves. Therefore, I encourage you to watch this beautiful video featuring a number of different children talking about big emotions and how they use breathing to find calm. (This video brings tears to my eyes to see the vulnerability and strength in these children).

I have also included a super fun breathing video that includes Elmo, Colbie Caillat, and a rapper teaching belly breathing. Your kids will love this video… I know mine do!  


If you are looking for specific deep breathing exercises for both yourself, youth, and children I invite you to check out my JUST BREATHE page. Many of the breathing exercises included are great for children as they are simple, include visualizations, and actions which help to distract and calm also.

Follow us @mentallyhealthy_me or @mentallyhealthymama

2 Comments on “Teaching Little Ones About BIG Emotions – Deep Breathing

  1. thanks for a beautiful post! I love the story about you and your daughter and candy. I also love the idea that taking a breath can help her use her words to communicate what she needs. Finally, I love that I can use these techniques for myself, and that little ones at 3 years are smart and wise enough to remind us too!


  2. ps I grew up with some very large and sometimes massive emotions. Still do, but learning how to think and relax through them. I’ve learned as an adult that it’s a beautiful thing to feel deeply, but I wish I had some of these skills sooner.


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