Years ago I worked with a mother and her son that were struggling to enjoy life together. I was primarily supposed to be working with the son, but as a therapist, I always incorporate the parents into their child’s therapy. On occasions when I invited both Mom and her son into the office together, I observed that the little boy was an absolute master at getting under his mother’s skin. He would push all the right buttons to Mom’s breaking point. Mom had been conditioned to expect the worst and then react with her worst each time they were together. When she felt that he should be sitting calmly and listening intently in our sessions together, the little boy would hop around the room and pick up items in the office. As he did so, I could see his mother start to fidget in the seat. Within a couple minutes of being together in the same room, she would give audible gasps as he picked things up or moved from spot to spot. Her chest would heave and she would become visibly frazzled as she barked out orders and made short threats and negative statements about his character. She would get so frustrated that she would even shake at times.
Over time, we worked together on her learning skills to calm herself and respond mindfully and in accordance with TRU principles. To her amazing credit, she made incredible changes. Her behavior toward him changed dramatically over the course of a month or two. I could see a dramatic shift in her attitudes and responses, and subsequently in her son’s as well.
After a couple months and some radical improvements she said to me, “Things are so much better, but I still struggle at home sometimes to keep my cool. I wish I always had a parent coach or some kind of tool there with me to remind me and help me calm down.”
I responded, “You’re in luck, you do! You have a tool that is always with you that can help you at any time and in any place. It’s your Breath!”
The coach or tool that is always with us
One of the greatest things about our breath, is that it is always with us. It’s not some external stress relief tool that you can set down somewhere and misplace like your keys, or lip balm. Our breath can be that coach or tool that ‘we wish we had’ to utilize before we explode or do something we regret.
Important benefits of conscious deep, slow and regulated breathing:
- Increases personal awareness
- A simple way to take control of an involuntary reaction
- Increases oxygen to improve brain and body function
- Creates a natural reflective moment
- It triggers relaxation and stress reduction
How to get the most of your breath to help you achieve your parenting goals:
1. Notice your breath: The first step of making the most of this incredible parenting and personal improvement tool is to notice it. Recognize and make it conscious and voluntary, rather than simply a survival mode and involuntary function of the body. It’s important to notice and be grateful for the fact that it is an involuntary function that keeps us alive without conscious effort, but when we are intentionally aware of our breath it can provide even greater benefits than just merely keeping us alive.
Exercise: Without changing your breath, just become deliberately aware of it. Notice whether it is shallow or deep. Notice whether your chest or your belly move when you breathe. Notice how you feel as you pay attention to your breath. Finally, change how you breathe in some way and make mental note of how it feels as you change it.
2. Make your belly rise and fall with each breath: Belly breathing allows you to get much more oxygen into your body and subsequently allows us to function with greater power. When your belly expands, it means that your diaphragm is drawing your lungs downward to allow them to fill to their full capacity. With each exhale, allow your body to soften and relax.
Exercise: Place your hands on your belly (across your belly button) and take 3-5 deep breaths. Watch to see your hands rise and fall with your breath. Your belly should rise or expand with the inhale and fall or contract with the exhale. If you find that it is hard for you to belly breathe, lay on your stomach over the arm of a lazy boy chair or couch and take some deep breathes. In this position it is natural to breathe all the way into your belly.
3. Make each breath deep, slow and regulated: Count out your breathes, “In, 2, 3, 4… Out, 2, 3, 4.” Draw out each breath. This allows you to challenge the fight or flight switch in your brain, and to get back in the driver’s seat of your emotions and reactions.
Exercise: Take a normal breath as you generally would, then stop your breath and hold it for a second. Next, exhale again without taking another breath. Push out all of the air in your lungs until you cannot get any more air out. Now take a deep belly breath and exhale in a regulated way, slow and steady, like you are breathing into a balloon. When we get anxious, or angry, our breathing often quickens and becomes shallow. This exercise helps us to consciously recognize that we have far greater breath capacity than we often use and we have the power to manage that willfully.
4. Attach a positive thought, image or routine to your conscious breathing: Decide now on how you will handle high stress or frustrating situations with your kids and recite that while you breathe deeply as instructed above. You could also remind yourself of positive statements that help you to improve your mood in tough times. This helps us to condition a positive association with our conscious breathing.
Exercise: Write down a positive statement and a simple procedure you can follow when you are feeling stressed, overwhelmed, anxious, frustrated or angry. Choose things that Teach positive skills and values, build our Relationship with our child and Upgrade and improve ourselves. While you write these things down, take 3-5 deep breathes like explained in this article.
5. Practice: This is pretty self-explanatory, but the point is, that to really utilize our breath as the valuable parenting and self-regulation tool that it is, we have to practice it regularly. Practice it in and out of tough situations. Designate a little time regularly to practice breathing deliberately in this way.
Exercise: Select at least 3 times this week to practice TRU breath. It doesn’t have to be long. Even to practice 5 breaths can be rewarding. It can be done anywhere, in your car, at work, while doing laundry or while sitting quietly by yourself. (You can learn more about deep breathing, the foundation of relaxation, by getting the Quick Calm Technique. You can further learn and practice this method along with several other helpful relaxation and meditation techniques by downloading the “TRU Calm Relaxation and Self-Renewal Series” that will be released on Sept. 25th, 2014).
So what happened to the mother and son in the story?
The mother that I worked with years ago practiced and practiced and became a virtuoso of managing her emotions and reactions. It didn’t happen overnight, but she told me that when she truly stopped to consider her breath and to realize that it was always there to help her, she made leaps and bounds. She felt less stressed and knew that when her stress did arise, she could handle it.
Regardless of whether you struggle with yelling, spanking or just responding with negative tones and destructive words, you can learn to better manage those things by simply becoming acquainted with your breath. It can become a calming friend that is always with you. Even if you don’t find yourself reacting in negative ways, you certainly feel stress, anxiety, frustration and anger from time to time. Understanding and utilizing our breath can help us to heal, forgive and return to happiness.
So, take a deep breath and start to enjoy your life and parenting more fully!
What do you experience when you stop and notice your breath? How has breathing helped you or blessed your parenting and family?