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Relaxation Techniques

What are relaxation techniques for children with serious illnesses?

Relaxation is a broad term that describes strategies used to help a child, teen, or young adult relax when going through medical treatment. Certain relaxation techniques can help them cope with the effects of illness. Methods include deep breathing, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation.

Children, teens, and young adults can use these methods almost anywhere. The approach can change based on age. Relaxation can reduce stress and help with side effects like pain, tiredness, and upset stomach.

Benefits of relaxation

Woman deep breathing outside

Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing can help with pain, stress, and treatment side effects.

Relaxation techniques have many benefits. Relaxation can help:

  • Lower heart rate
  • Slow breathing
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improve well-being

Research shows relaxation can help with many common problems during treatment, including:

Your child can learn to use these methods on their own. This gives them more control and confidence.

Relaxation methods can also help you. Research shows that if you are calm and relaxed, then your child is more likely to be calm and relaxed.

Children learn how to cope from caregivers. As they see you use a positive approach to handle stress and fear, they can learn to deal with stress and fear, too.

Types of relaxation techniques 

Relaxation techniques include deep breathing, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation.

Deep breathing

Breathing exercises help your child use patterns of deep, slow, regular breathing. During stress, breathing is fast and shallow. Heart rate and blood pressure increase. Slow, deep breathing changes brain signals. This helps your child’s mind and body relax.

Breathing techniques can involve breathing in and breathing out while counting to a number. For example: breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 4, breathe out for 4.

Other methods focus on how the belly and chest move. For example, your child can place a stuffed animal on their belly and watch it rise and fall. Try different deep breathing exercises to see what works best.

Guided imagery

In guided imagery, your child uses their imagination to create pleasant mental images in as much detail as possible, using all 5 senses. This mental picture often includes an image of a favorite place.

Using the imagination can change heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. Seeing positive images reduces stress and anxiety by creating a mental escape.

Guided imagery may help with:

  • Worry
  • Fear
  • Stress
  • Anger
  • Pain
  • Upset stomach
  • Sleep problems
  • Getting through medical tests or procedures

A care provider can lead the guided imagery. Your child can also do the guided imagery on their own. A recording may help guide your child. Music or nature sounds can help them connect to the imagined scenes.

Progressive muscle relaxation

In progressive muscle relaxation, your child tenses and releases small groups of muscles, 1 at a time. A care provider will guide your child to do this slowly, in a specific order (from head to toe, for example).

This technique can be combined with deep breathing or guided imagery. Progressive muscle relaxation can help your child become more aware of their body.

One way to make progressive muscle relaxation more real to kids is to assign muscles a color. Tight muscles may be given a red, and the goal is to change them to a calm, relaxing color. Children can choose the color that makes sense to them and imagine the muscles changing color as they release the tension.

Dr. Jenn Allen, pediatric psychologist

What you need to know about relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques are safe for most people. Harmful effects from these strategies are rare. But some could cause negative emotions or worsen existing mental health problems.

Certain methods might work better for some children than for others. Ask your child’s care team before trying any relaxation technique.

  • Relaxation and meditation do not replace conventional treatments: These strategies may help with symptoms. But they should never replace therapies from a medical provider.
  • Always speak with a care provider first: Ask your care team which methods may help your child. Be sure to tell them about all the techniques you are thinking about.
  • Find a trained professional: For any therapy, the provider should have training, certification, and experience working with children and teens. This will help make sure your child gets the best care.

Questions to ask your care team

  • What relaxation techniques would you suggest for my child?
  • How can relaxation help my child?
  • How do I find a licensed care provider?
  • Can I practice relaxation techniques with my child?
  • What do I need to know about the safety of these methods?

Key points about relaxation techniques

  • Relaxation techniques can help children cope with serious childhood illnesses.
  • Examples of ways to relax include deep breathing, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation.
  • These methods can help with pain, nausea, stress, and other effects of disease and its treatment.
  • Caregivers and family members can use these methods along with the patient.
  • Talk with the care team about ways to relax that might help your child.

Find more information

Relaxation apps

The Together by St. Jude online resource does not endorse any branded product or organization mentioned in this article.

Reviewed: November 2023