Subduing stress: relaxation techniques

As the school year comes barreling to an end, I always find an assortment of students parading through my office with stress related ailments. Struggling to keep up in class can be extremely stressful for a child. Whether the child is college aged or elementary school aged, concerned parents want to know how to prevent their child from internalizing stress. Today, psychologist Dr. Sandy Barbo provides us with relaxation techniques to deflect tension. The mom of two college-aged daughters, Dr. Barbo has worked with children and their families for over twenty years. – Dr. Lai
Hurry, hurry, hurry!!! Off to soccer practice, or the orthodontist’s office, or swim class, or a scout meeting, or a violin lesson. Don’t forget homework, that spelling test… oh no! Wasn’t there a special poster project due soon? Quick, run into Staples to get that poster board. Oh, and yes, we can’t forget to grab some take-out because with all the rush, who had time to make dinner?
Sound familiar? We tend to live very busy lives these days and our children’s schedules reflect that in all the many activities they engage in. Even our youngest and smallest have schedules!
Busy-ness can lead to stress, but so can a host of other experiences our children live through day to day. Our kids have to juggle performance in school (getting assignments done, managing academic and extracurricular challenges), survival in social groups (peer pressure,bullying, overcoming shyness), and even the occasional external stress that filters down from the adult world (news of a disaster, parental job stress, illness in an extended family member).
How do we as parents help inoculate our kids so they can better manage the various stresses and anxieties that come their way? There are many possibilities. Here are a few:
One of the easiest and most effective stress busting strategies you can teach your child (and yourself!) has to do with the deep, diaphragmatic breath. Lie down on the floor with your child or sit upright in a comfortable chair. The trick is to align the chest above the pelvis. Make a diamond shape with your thumbs and index fingers.Show your child how to position the belly button in the middle of the diamond. Now instruct her to slowly take in a deep, filling breath so that the belly starts to raise her hands up as far as they can go. Slowly, exhale and allow the belly to sink back down. When empty, fill up again slowly, but comfortably. For some kids, it helps them to imagine they are filling a balloon with their breath and then letting it all out. When you’ve completed 3 belly breaths you’ve created a “mini”. And “minis” are wonderful as they can be done almost anywhere, anytime, incognito! Remind your child on the way to school, “Let’s do a mini”; or before going into an anxiety provoking situation; or even at the end of the day, in bed to help settle everyone down. The deep breath counters our body’s response to stress and is incompatible with anxiety which provokes shallow chest breathing. Try modeling “minis” for your child and encourage him to practice them at least 3 times each day. When you teach your child how to do “minis”, he’s learned a powerful stress buster that he can put to use whenever or wherever the need arises.
Don’t forget the good old fashioned belly laugh. We know that humor helps us reframe and relieve stress, but the deep belly laugh is also diaphragmatic and forges a healthy mind/body connection. Don’t be bashful. Suggest a tickle fest. Have a book of age-appropriate jokes around that you can share with your kids. Belly laughs are infectious. It almost doesn’t matter what silly idea starts them. Show your kids that the sillies can get the better of you too and laugh all of yourselves to the point of exhaustion.
We tend to hold our tension in our “stress triangle”the area between the shoulders and up towards the neck. Show your kid show to gently press their shoulders up towards their ears, then roll them back and relax along with those wonderful deep breaths they’ve already learned. Also, indulge in massage. Rub between your child’s shoulders. At bedtime, offer a foot massage.
Another helpful de-stressor at bedtime can be a guided imagery exercise. You become your child’s guide. Help her create her imaginary safe, relaxed place by engaging all of the senses. Pick, or have your child pick, her favorite vacation setting. Beach? Be ready to customize your guided tour to her most wonderful fantasies. Have her close her eyes, start deep breaths and use her imagination to picture herself stepping down a series of 10 steps into the setting as you slowly and in your most soothing voice count. For example:
1. You’re at the top of a set of stairs that go down the dunes to the beach. You see the beautiful beach below you.Imagine what you see. Imagine the colors all around you. (Deep breath)
2. You can see the wonderful beach scene before you,the boats on the water, the few wispy clouds in the beautiful blue sky, the gulls that fly over the water. (Deep breath)
3. You can feel the sun on your skin. It’s deliciously warm. (Deep breath)
4. A cool breeze, just the right temperature is gently blowing through your hair. (Deep breath)
5. You can hear the sound of the waves lapping at the shore. The sun is sparkling off the water. Imagine the other sounds you hear on the beach. (Deep breath)
6. You can smell all those wonderful beach smells, the sunscreen, the wet sand. You can almost taste the salty ocean water droplets as they reach your lips. (Deep breath)
7. You feel your toes in the sand. It is just the right warm temperature, soft and comfortable under your feet. (Deep breath)
8. You are at the water now. Just let your toes wiggle and feel the wonderful temperature of the water. As you wriggle your toes you can see the sea foam and the sand make wonderful patterns between your toes. (Deep breath)
9. All around you are the people you love. (Deep breath)
10. You lie down on the beach feeling so relaxed and comfortable, just resting and enjoying the wonderful sounds, smells, feelings,tastes, views of the beach. You are restful and relaxed. You are breathing deep steady breaths. Enjoy this feeling of relaxation in this safe, warm, wonderful place. In a minute, when you are ready, you can gently open your eyes or allow yourself to drift off to sleep.
The above mentioned guided imagery exercise can become a beloved ritual. My daughter’s favorite involved a meadow with a family of unicorns. Each night, I learned to tap all my creative resources to keep the characters on interesting adventures in the meadow all the while engaging my daughter’s sensory system within her fantastic imagination, as she continued to deep breathe and leave the stressors of her day behind.
Invite your kids to share when they’ve used their stress busters during the day. Model for them how to take a “mini” to manage some aggravation that comes your way. With just a little bit of practice, your child can start to use these stress-busting strategies, when challenged, to reestablish a sense of calm. It’s truly a gift that keeps on giving over and over again.
Sandy Barbo, Ph.D.
© 2010 Two Peds in a Pod
Dr. Barbo is a licensed psychologist and the mom of two college-aged daughters. She has been working with children, parents and families for over 20 years. In addition to providing psychotherapy for anxiety, depression, trauma, Dr. Barbo has developed sub-specialties in infertility, pre and post-adoption, and ADHD. Contact her at: or P.O. Box 196, New Hope, PA 18938 telephone (215)297-5092
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