Hypnosis with younger children is different in content and appearance than with older children, adolescents and adults.
The key to effective hypnosis is to speak the patient’s language, and thus with younger children therapists and parents need to rely more on rhythm, rhyme, and imagery than we might use with an older individual.
An infant can be induced into a trance state by shaking a set of keys rhythmically unto which she can affix her gaze.
A 2-year-old can go into hypnosis through confusion. For example, 2-year-olds often dislike undergoing a physical examination and may protest because they dislike it when a stethoscope touches them. Routinely, I would tell a 2-year-old, “First, I am going to listen to mommy.” But rather than doing it, I place the stethoscope on the child’s chest. The children usually are very confused by this because they realize something is wrong with this picture. They quiet down as they process the unusual situation and remain calm throughout a brief exam!
A 3-year-old can be entranced by listening to a favorite rhythmic story such as by Dr. Seuss. One of my children so loved “The Three Little Pigs” at that age, that when I told that story about the wolf huffing and puffing, my child’s post-operative bandages were removed without any reaction.
A 4-year-old loves to incorporate what she can learn from stories. For example, a famous children’s story about Madeline describes how she loved to be tucked into bed at the end of an adventurous day. This story helped some of my patients be tucked calmly into bed instead of focusing on their fears.
A 5-year-old who was afraid of medical procedures overcame his fear by bringing in his toy soldiers and participating in conversation with me regarding how soldiers are brave if they are injured in battle. We never talked about the child specifically, but after our play he handled procedures well.
In each of these examples the young child did not obviously appear to be in a trance, as do many teenagers and adults: For example, with eyes closed and little motion. The first three children did pause with their usual activities, but the 4- and 5-year-old children were engaged in active conversations with me during their therapy. The elements of hypnosis that were present in all 5 children is that they shifted their mindset through focus on the therapeutic interaction. Further evidence of the hypnotic effect in the two older children was that they incorporated the suggestions given to them.
Another important difference for hypnosis with young children is that their parents need to be involved and taught how to best help their children with use of hypnosis. For example, parents can be told to read and reread a story with embedded suggestions to their child. Or parents can remind their children of the suggestions given by the therapist, such as that soldiers are brave. With older children, and especially teens, my instruction to parents usually is to stay away and trust that their children can help themselves. The parent who attempts to coach a teen to do hypnosis usually succeeds in ensuring the teen will do the opposite.
Working successfully with young children requires a therapist who is willing to be flexible and go with the child, as opposed to therapy that follows a particular protocol.
Young children tend to accept what they are told much more simply than do older children. Thus, hypnosis in that age group often can be very simple and taught with a brief intervention.
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