A Family Activity: Conscious Relaxation


I hate it when somebody tells me, “Just relax!” I would protest angrily, “I am not stressed out!” I was wound up tight, but I didn’t know what to do to relax.

I’m not alone. We value busyness and “getting the job done.” We equate high stress with being a good citizen, a productive employee, and a dedicated parent. This is so ingrained that most of us have forgotten what relaxation feels like or how to get there. This is especially true when you are trying to cope with the added stress of raising a child with disabilities…

How do we consciously relax? I have used a technique quite successfully in a group of adults with multiple disabilities who participate in relaxation training at the developmental center where I work. It involves deep breathing and giving your body clear instructions to tighten and relax muscles, starting at the feet, and slowly and methodically working toward the head.

Children, disabled and otherwise, can participate as long as they are able to sit still and follow verbal instructions or imitate what they see adults doing. Most three-year-olds, regardless of disability, would have difficulty with this, but most eight- to twelve-year-olds can do it. Children and adults with cognitive disabilities might need a helper sitting nearby to redirect focus. Session length would start short and gradually increase as everyone learns how conscious relaxation works.

First, sit in comfortable chairs in a circle in a room with dim lights. A small room is better than a large room, and there should be no TV, no radio. Calm relaxation music can be helpful. The leader asks everyone to sit quietly and listen to the sound of their breathing. It is often helpful at first to exaggerate this to get the point across. When I am the leader, I sometimes add the words “breathing in, hear yourself breathing in . . . breathing out, hear yourself breathing out.”

After a minute or so you say “Now we are going to tighten up our feet.” Tell everyone to make their feet good and tight. “Tighter, tighter, make your feet really tight. Now relax them.” The leader visually models what the group is expected to do.

At this point the leader reminds everyone to turn their attention back to their breathing. Encourage everyone to listen to their breathing for a few breaths.

Next the leader says, “Now we are going to tighten both our legs. Make them tight.” The leader lifts both legs straight out in front so that everyone can see and imitate it. “Make your legs really tight . . . tighter . . . tighter still. Now relax them,” and the leader drops his or her legs to the floor.

Once again the leader has everyone return their attention to breathing as before with a similar verbal formula.

A minute later the leader says, “We are going to tighten our backs and our bellies. Make your back and belly really tight . . . tighter . . . tighter . . . as tight as you can. Now relax.” Exaggerate sudden relaxation and return everyone’s attention to their breathing.

After a minute the leader says, “Now we will tighten both our arms,” and holds them out rigid in front. “Tighten both your arms. Make them as tight as you can, and relax!” Go back to awareness of breathing.

Then the leader says “We are going to make our faces tight.” Really hamming it up, the leader shows a contorted face. “Squish up your face. Really make your face tight . . . tighter. . . tighter . . . tighter, and relax!” Turn attention back to breathing. As leader I always add “Breathing in, I am relaxing. . . . Breathing out, I am relaxed,” and repeat it several times. The leader encourages the group to sit quietly and peacefully and to enjoy this feeling of total relaxation. How long this goes on depends on the age and disability level of group members. Usually the leader can tell when it is time to finish the session and will say, “What a wonderful time we have had relaxing! Now we will slowly open our eyes and come back to our lovely day.”

You will be amazed at how good you feel.

Excerpt from Faith, Family, and Children with Special Needs by David Rizzo.