As adults we are well aware of the stress in our lives. It comes at us from all directions - work, relationships, finances, health, politics, and world events to name a few. Although we don't often recognize it, children can be just as stressed out as their parents and the other adults in their lives. Childhood stress can be even more damaging to health and wellbeing and have deleterious effects for decades to come. By teaching children simple breathing techniques you can give them tools that will make them healthier as adults, improve academic and athletic performance, and help them become more emotionally stable and resilient.

Although we like to think of childhood as a carefree time, children are often exposed to plenty of stress. According to Dr. Sabine Hack, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, "Children feel stress long before they grow up. Many children have to cope with family conflict, divorce, constant changes in schools, neighborhoods and child care arrangements, peer pressure, and sometimes, even violence in their homes or communities."

The impact of stressful events is different from child to child. Dr. Hack maintains that "it depends on a child's personality, maturity, and style of coping. It is not always obvious, however, when children are feeling overtaxed. Children often have difficulty describing exactly how they feel. Instead of saying 'I feel overwhelmed' they might say 'my stomach hurts.' When some children are stressed they cry, become aggressive, talk back or become irritable. Others may behave well but become nervous, fearful, or panicky."

Just as in adults, stress can directly affect both the minds and bodies of children. Asthma, hay fever, migraine headache and gastrointestinal illnesses can be exacerbated by stressful situations, and it can put children at risk for heart attacks, strokes and depression later in life.

It can also be a factor in academic performance. In a recent issue of Psychoneuroendocrinology (for those of you who missed it) researchers at Douglas Hospital Research Center reported that chronic stress can be harmful to your health as well as your brain. Specifically, they found that stress hormones such as cortisol can inhibit the learning and rational thinking abilities of young adults. Dr. Sonja Lupien, director of the center's Laboratory of Stress Research, found that even short-term stress (and the accompanying increase in cortisol) could lead to reversible memory impairment in children ranging from six to fourteen. They also found that higher cortisol levels corresponded with lower socio-economic status presumably due to the associated family, nutritional and environmental stresses. Long-term stress can damage the area of the brain responsible for regulating cortisol which increases the susceptibility to anxiety related disorders such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, depression and circulatory problems.

In one of the world's longest running health studies, researchers at New Zealand's University of Otago have recently tied childhood stress directly to adult health issues. The study, which was one of the world's longest running health studies, shows that children who experienced maltreatment, ranging from sexual and physical abuse to instabilities such as frequent changes in residence and/or caregivers, were nearly twice as likely to develop heart problems later in life when compared to children who rated their childhood as "happy." Associate Professor Richie Poulton, the study's author stated, "It's the first study in the world to show a strong biological, plausible link between stress at a young age and physical health outcomes in later life," and that our health is "the cumulative experience of a lifetime."

So how can we fend off the effects of stress and protect our children? Clearly we can't shield them from the difficult aspects of life, nor should we, but we can teach them the skills they need to deal with stressful situations without letting the stress permeate their bodies and gnaw away at their health, both now an in the future. The single most important skill they can learn is how to use their breath. It is the most effective and practical method of dealing with stress and improving performance on every level.

Two techniques that every child (and adult) should know are the Six Second Breath and Anxiety Breathing.
Six Second Breath

Normally we breathe 15 to 20 times per minute - faster or slower as dictated by stress and emotions such as anger, grief and frustration. However recent research has shown that a rate of in the neighborhood of 10 breaths per minute (six seconds per breath) is most beneficial to our health.

Teach your child this simple exercise as follows:

- Inhale for 3 seconds through the nose (one-one thousand, two-two thousand, three-three thousand)

- Exhale for 3 seconds through the mouth (one-one thousand, two-two thousand, three-three thousand)

- Repeat as needed

It is simple enough to teach to even young children, and can be used to draw their attention away from pain, anger, fear, stress, and sadness while simultaneously counteracting the physiological effects of intense emotions.
Anxiety Breathing

This technique is invaluable for instances where the child is having trouble catching his or her breath or is hyperventilating. It is similar to Six Second Breathing but with the focus on the exhale.

- Have them start by blowing out from their mouth with a long, slow "whoosh" until they are completely out of breath

- Then slowly inhale for a count of three (one-one thousand, two-two thousand, three-three thousand).

- Repeat 5-10 times

This will help them regain control of their breathing and emotions at which point they can resume the Six Second Breathing if necessary.

Conscious breathing techniques are a powerful tool to counteract the physical and emotional effects of stress on children. It is an essential life skill and can become their "secret weapon" for managing test-taking stress, improving athletic performance, and controlling anger, sadness, fear, and frustration. The simplicity and effectiveness of the techniques combined with their ability to be used anytime, anywhere, make them a life skill and a habit that every child (and adult) should learn.

Author's Bio: 

Don Campbell and Al Lee are the authors of Perfect Breathing: Transform Life Your Breath At A Time (Sterling Publishing/2009) and write, speak, train, and blog tirelessly on the subject. Discover more ways you can improve your health, performance, and wellbeing at Reach them at or call 1-888-317-6718.