Structure is critical for children. But when we’re faced with an unprecedented disruption like this world-wide pandemic, that structure is thrown out the window. Children are forced to deal with a frightening new reality in which they have lost critical elements of security – separated from their friends, teachers, and familiar environments. We saw thousands of children go through such trauma during the devastating Northern California wildfires in 2018, and these shattering experiences are documented in a film short that is part of TakeFive, a program of The TakeCare Campaign, which is a national initiative that offers tools to help people improve their own health and well-being through messages embedded in inspirational short films. 

The film, “Just Breathe,” shows the devastating impact that disasters have on families who have lost everything that made them feel secure – their homes, memories, and even loved ones. But the film also shows their path to healing through the simple, yet powerful exercise of breathwork. Many children today are experiencing similar struggles, so I want to share some tips for parents looking for healthy ways to guide their children through this uncertain time.

Uncover the Power Within

When children are feeling anxious, it is often due to a loss of control or a sense of chaos in their world. But you don’t have to look far for a way to gain back that feeling of control: there’s a power within each of us – our breath – that can help us regain a sense of peace and calm. Breathwork is a perfect exercise to help children feel grounded both emotionally and physically. It’s accessible, safe, and a universal tool that everyone can use.

When you breathe deeply, regularly, and slowly, you engage the part of your nervous system that lowers your heart rate and syncs your breath with your heartbeat, helping to lower stress hormones like cortisol.  Focusing on breathing also gives you a sense of control of your body, which in turn calms your thinking and brings you back to the present moment, shifting you away from worrying about the future.

In the film, we see a group of children each choose a favorite rock, then lie down and place it on their bellies. Through rhythmic breathing, they concentrate on the up-and-down movement of that rock as they inhale and exhale. It creates a new pathway to mindfulness, enabling them to truly focus on “right here and right now” – on what they can control. It shows us how amazingly powerful the mind-body connection can be.

Take Care of Yourself

Parents naturally put their children’s well-being first. And while that’s understandable, it’s just as important for parents to take care of their own mental health and emotional well-being. Children look to us as role-models for how to cope in stressful situations and they will easily pick up on an adult’s anxiety. When our stress increases, so will our children’s. Just as flight attendants instruct adults to first place an oxygen mask over their own faces before their children’s, parents also need to prioritize their mental health to be able to help their children.

This doesn’t mean you need to invest a lot of money in self-care. Simply practicing the same breathwork exercises that your children practice will provide you with the same benefits. If that’s not of interest to you, explore other mindfulness practices like those pictured on this “Tree of Contemplative Practices.”

Give Children Outlets

Of course, asking a child to sit still and concentrate on breathing might not be the best approach for some kids. But there are many other outlets for children that can be just as effective at helping them to manage stress and anxiety. Explore different activities with your kids to find what speaks to them. Maybe they love to be active and play outside or they enjoy sitting quietly, reading a book. You should try to engage with them in their activity and support it as much as you can. Help them find that outlet that best allows them to focus their energy and thoughts.

Looking to the Future

A year after we filmed “Just Breathe,” one of the little girls featured in the film, a four-year-old named Robin, was still practicing breathwork. It had a remarkable calming effect, enabling her to quickly control her emotions. “What have you done with my daughter?!” her father joked, marveling at her newfound self-control.

“Just Breathe” is ultimately a heartwarming story of how parents have helped their children find a way to cope with profound trauma. It’s a great lesson for us today as we look to the future and worry about continuing uncertainty. Remember that our children – and, indeed, all of us – have the power within to face this uncertainty.  All we have to do is just breathe.

Larry Rosen, MD is an advisor on the film, Just Breathe, as a part of The Healthy US Collaborative’s TakeCare Campaign. He is also the founder of The Whole Child Center, a pediatric practice with a mission to provide children and families with high-quality, state-of-the-art integrative and ecologically-sustainable healthcare.