Regulating Emotions with Breathing and Mindfulness

Children who struggle with emotion regulation problems need strategies that are grounded in research-proven results so they can be successful.

If you’re a mental health professional working with children, youth, and families, chances are you’ve worked with children who struggle with regulating their strong emotions.  Parents of these children are often overwhelmed and unsure how to help their child and are looking to you as the “expert” to know what to do and how to help their child. Emotion dysregulation wreaks havoc on self-esteem and relationships for children so the impact can be experienced throughout their lives if not addressed early.  

So how do you help your young clients and reassure their parents that everything will be okay? How do you make sure they develop effective skills that will actually help? These are the questions you need to ask yourself when working with children who experience regular emotion dysregulation.  Understanding the mind-body connection of emotion regulation can ensure you ground your treatment approach for effective change.  Mindfulness is a great way to teach your clients skills for managing their strong emotions that's backed by a wealth of research about it's effectiveness.

First, a short review of the mind-body connection to help guide our treatment strategies

From birth children are creating the neural circuitry that will allow them to regulate their emotions.  So, it’s important to identify treatment strategies that will support this important developmental process. The goal for play therapy is helping your young clients develop the ability for long-term emotion regulation skills that will help them to internally regulate their emotions. It’s important for play therapists to understand the mind-body connection so you can accurately target your interventions and recognize the underlying triggers for behavior. Using neuroscience-informed strategies to teach coping and calming skills to children and their caregivers provides an opportunity for children to establish the emotion regulation neural circuitry needed to be successful in their relationships and daily lives.

Polyvagal theory developed by Stephen Porges (2011) provides an understanding the role of the autonomic nervous system and the vagal system to regulate emotions. He discusses the importance of maintaining strong cardiac vagal tone and flexibility via the vagal brake (discussed in the blog article: Calming Strategies for Regulating Strong Emotions). The goal in play therapy is to help your young clients struggling with emotion regulation create wide windows of tolerance. Since parents are the co-regulators for their children (discussed in the blog article: Benefits of Co-regulation for Children and Parents in Play Therapy), it’s important to teach coping and calming skills to parents so they can regulate their own emotions while helping their child to regulate their emotions. 

I like to use the analogy of the roller coaster to help parents understand the importance to remaining emotionally regulated during their child’s “emotional storms.”  In this analogy, the roller coaster is the child’s emotions.  During an emotional meltdown the child is in the roller coaster car moving along the ups and downs and upside downs of the roller coaster with their emotions. Every roller coaster ride has a platform where people wait their turn to get on the roller coaster ride. In this analogy, parents need to remain “on the platform” while their child “rides the emotional roller coaster” to help remain steady and calm until the child can “disembark” from their emotion dysregulation episode. If parents dysregulate, then they essentially get on the roller coaster with their child.  When this happens there is no adult to be the calming, steadying force to help the child calm down.  Therefore, helping parents understand the importance of staying on the “platform” is key to helping their child regulate their strong emotions.

What does a roller coaster have to do with breathing and mindfulness, you ask? 

To help children and youth (as well as parents) regulate their emotions (i.e. – get off the emotional roller coaster), play therapists can teach the importance of mindfulness and breathing. Remember cardiac vagal tone? The ability to slow down the heart rate will in turn bring your vagal system into a state of homeostasis. Helping your young clients regain homeostasis within their bodies requires play therapists to use strategies that teach them how to regain balance within their bodies. This will help clients develop emotion regulation circuitry to tolerate stressors throughout their day and remain within their windows of tolerance. If you’ve read my previous blog articles, I discussed the role of vagal nerve system, emotion regulation and co-regulation, and the importance of understanding the neuroscience underlying behavior to make sure you conceptualize treatment needs for your clients. 

Paced breathing helps regulate heart rate which in turn settles down the body and emotions to bring your young clients into a mindful state. Mindfulness is generally defined as paying attention on purpose in the present moment. Regulating your breathing is critical for this process. When you’re in a mindful state, you're fully present in the moment and focused on calming your emotions and relaxing your body. Teaching breathing strategies, such as Square Breathing, Belly Breathing, and other breathing techniques is a valuable tool for regulating emotions and entering into a mindful state. In this mindful state, you're fully present in the moment, not in the past ruminating about unpleasant events or perseverating on potential negative future events, also known as “future tripping.” 

Helping your young clients regain homeostasis within their bodies when their strong emotions become activated requires play therapists to use strategies that teach them how to regain balance within their bodies. Paced breathing and mindfulness activities can be useful to internally calm your clients so they can gain control of their emotions.   Practicing these skills over and over can strengthen emotion regulation circuits. What gets “fired” gets “wired”, right? Integrating the therapeutic powers of play into this process ensures the interventions meet the developmental needs of your clients. I love using bubbles to teach breathing skills, plus they’re just fun and absolutely helps to be fully present in the moment. Who doesn’t love bubbles, right? I also really like using paced breathing because it can be used anywhere at any time with no special equipment or supplies. 

For children and adolescents who struggle throughout the day to manage their strong emotions, taking short breaks throughout the day using paced breathing allows them to strengthen the neural circuitry needed to develop internal regulation.  You can coach parents to advocate for their child to have short breaks during school as needed.  Parents can discuss with school staff to identify an adult at school who can support the use of paced breathing and mindfulness skills.  Children need at least one safe adult in the school system to co-regulate their strong emotions and use their coping/calming skills in the moment when needed.

Are you a mental health professional working with children and families? Here’s a free pdf with five of my favorite mindfulness-based emotion regulation interventions to help children regulate their strong emotions.  (I used the beans, bubbles, and water activities with my own children and they were magical!). Click here for a free copy of my pdf: 5 of My Favorite Mindfulness-based Interventions for Regulating Emotions

Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neourophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, self-regulation. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neourophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, self-regulation. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Categories: emotion regulation, Play Therapy