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Hypnotherapy with Children

by Kate McEwen(more info)

listed in hypnosis, originally published in issue 209 - October 2013

Hypnotherapy is a non-invasive therapy which is utilized to help bring about behavioural change in a gentle way using suggestion therapy and, where necessary, analysis. Some people retain doubts about the application of hypnotherapy with children, but in fact children respond extremely well to this intervention. Its use can be extremely beneficial in overcoming a wide range of conditions such as, but not exclusively, nocturnal enuresis (bed wetting), nail biting, fears and phobias, fussy eating and confidence issues, to name but a few.

Kate McEwan article

Whilst it may be unusual for a hypnotherapist to agree to work with a child under the age of six or seven years old, this is not because they cannot be hypnotized (singing a lullaby to a child to calm them and help them to sleep is one application of hypnosis), but because, for hypnosis to be used effectively in therapy, the child requires to be able to concentrate for a sufficient period to benefit from what will be a series of suggestions given during a session.

Some hypnotherapists, indeed, choose not to work with children. This can be for a variety of reasons, but often because applying hypnosis with young people is very different to working with adults. The signs and symptoms most associated with an adult client’s being in an hypnotic state include a stillness, mask like features and the impression that the client is asleep. This does not happen with the young client. They tend to be much more mobile, physically, and their depth of hypnosis, much more obviously cyclical.

A child may often be seen to relax down into the hypnotic state for a minute or two and then sit up, smile, talk, wriggle, and then appear to simply let themselves go again into an altered state of awareness when the suggestion is made that they do so, or when a pre-arranged / anchored ‘signal’ is given. For the inexperienced therapist this behaviour can be quite disconcerting!

Nonetheless it is extremely rewarding to work with young people as they do not bring to the ‘therapist’s couch’ the levels of self consciousness often observed with older or more mature clients. Furthermore their critical faculty is not so well developed, so they are much more inclined to accept suggestion without interference from the conscious, rational part of their mind.

Another differentiating factor is that children rarely instigate the making of the appointment. Most hypnotherapists will not, as a matter of course, take a booking from a third party; however, it is inevitable that this happens with children. That the parent will be the one to decide to make an appointment may be perceived, by the child, as having ‘choice’ removed from them. They may not even see their behaviour / habit as a ‘problem’.

As it is essential that the child not only be motivated to achieve the end result but that therapist develops a strong rapport with them in order for the session to be successful, it is important to ensure that child (and the parent!) is made aware that they do actually have control of the decision as to whether to go ahead with a session or not.

Whenever I see a young client for the first time I tell them, in front of the accompanying adult that, after we have had a quick chat they will be able to tell me if they want to go ahead with the therapy and that, should they decide they don’t want to, they are not to worry, I will not be upset and, having previously agreed with the parent or guardian, neither will they be. Many times a child will opt, after the initial discussion, not to go ahead with the actual hypnotherapy. I do not see this as a disadvantage, though parents often feel, at that point, that they have wasted their and my time.

Why do children do that? Well, I think it is a test of my honesty. When they state that they want to leave the therapy for the time being, I endorse their decision and deflect any negative reaction from the parent / guardian. I do, however, then ask them if they will carry out a wee task for me.

Usually their interest is piqued by this request and their agreement secured. I then ask them to do something related to their presenting complaint. For instance I might ask a bed wetter to keep a smiley diary ( J or L ) so that they keep track of their progress (or lack of). A child with a dental phobia might be asked to write down three reasons why going to the dentist could be a good thing.....or whatever.

In all but one case of children who have attended my clinic, and chosen not to go ahead immediately with the hypnotherapy, the child has, off their own bat, requested that their parents make an appointment so that they can go back and see ‘that lady’. Thus the child can enjoy a modicum of ‘say’ over whether they wish to connect with the therapy or not.

Many children successfully respond to suggestion therapy alone, though some, depending on their experiences, may require some form of analysis.

Hypnotherapists have different policies regarding working with children, but personally I always have the parent or carer in with the child during the first session so that they can sample how I work. That said, I request that any second or subsequent sessions, the parent remains outside the office as their presence may inhibit the child’s responses.

Case Study

Child x was brought to see me, by his mother, when he was 10 years old. The child was not sleeping well and had developed a habit of getting up from his bed, anything up to 12 times per night. His ‘reason’ was to go to the toilet, but he always made a point of going into his mother’s room, so they were both having very disturbed nights. Lack of sleep was beginning, naturally, to affect both of them.

I discovered, during the initial consultation, which I always carry out with a parent or guardian present (though not the focus of my attention) that when this child was 6, his father (30) had gone to work one day and not returned, having suffered a fatal heart attack.

It doesn’t requite comment that this would, inevitably, have had a profound effect on the boy, as well as the rest of the family. However, in this instance I think that the situation was exacerbated unintentionally by some well intentioned, kind, but misguided person who may have made a comment at some point, perhaps at the funeral, along the lines that he, this six year old child, was now ‘the man of the house’, as it became clear, during the initial chat that the reason for his nocturnal prowlings was that he felt responsible for the safety of his mother and little brother.

While his checking in on his mother was to reassure him that she was still alive, he also admitted to being afraid of the house being ‘robbed’.

Now, whilst it might be tempting to try to simply dismiss these fears by telling the child to stop worrying, that nothing is going to happen to his Mum and they aren’t going to be ‘robbed’, such an approach would be more likely to alienate the child, as not only would that be denying them the ‘right’ to worry, even a 10-year old would be aware that no-one could guarantee his mother’s survival and neither would it be possible to ensure that they were never burgled.

When, having explained in age-appropriate language, what hypnosis was and what I intended to do, I gave him to option as to go ahead or not. On this occasion, he wanted to work with me so we went immediately into the session.

I inducted him by asking him to imagine what it felt like when he was sitting watching TV, to be watching his favourite TV programme and to allow my voice to fade into the background, just like his Mum’s voice when she was calling through from the kitchen and he wasn’t really listening.... we then followed a deepening process and he responded very well.

He was a wriggler; he practically had his feet over the back of the recliner at one point, but he kept returning to deep hypnosis. Whilst he was in that state, I asked him to imagine that he had three boxes in front of him and that he was to imagine putting a label on each box.

The first box was ‘Maybe’. The second was ‘Extremely Likely’ and the third was ‘Extremely Unlikely’. After that I suggested various ‘things’ which might or might not happen and asked him to tell me into which box he was going to put these suggestions.

The suggestions included: going for an ice cream after leaving my office....? This went in the maybe box. Meeting with his aunt that afternoon ....? This was placed in the ‘Extremely likely box (I knew they were meeting up and I knew he knew). I continued with some general propositions and then suggested the likelihood of winning the lottery. This, he understood, went in the ‘Extremely Unlikely’ box. He had now clearly established three boxes for filing ‘probabilities’.

I was then able to gently insert the possibility of his Mum dying in the night. Without hesitation he put it in the ‘Extremely Unlikely’ box. This was a great result. I continued with some additional non threatening ideas for filing before slipping in the possibility of being ‘robbed’. Again, this went immediately into the ‘Extremely Unlikely’ box and then I finished with another few general suggestions. I was then able to congratulate him for doing some very important work.

Finishing the session with some confidence boosting and a count out, I could immediately see that some of the tension he had brought with him to the session had already dissipated.

Feedback was good. The child started to sleep well (and so did his mother!). It is now 10 years since I worked with this boy and he is now a man. Though I have only seen him once in the interim and that was quite recently, he recalls the session and how it was a turning point for him as a child. Such is the power of the therapy.


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About Kate McEwen

Kate McEwen BA(Hons) - Director & Principal Trainer has been in practice as a hypnotherapist, in partnership with John McEwen, since 1999 during which time she has been privileged to work with thousands of clients. Firstly as a partner at Corsebar Hypnotherapy Centre, Paisley, Kate currently practises as a partner in B9 Hypnotherapy, Argyll. In 2004, with a back ground in lecturing in further and higher education spanning 22 years, Kate took over the training remit for the National Society of Professional Hypnotherapists and is the principal trainer at the Scottish School of Hypnotherapy. She is a Member of the National Society of Professional Hypnotherapists (MNSPH), Senior Qualified Hypnotherapist - General Hypnotherapy Register (SQHP), Member of the National Council of Psychotherapists (MNCP), Member of the Hypnotherapy Association and Member of the Advisory Council of, and Postgraduate trainer for, the NSPH. Kate may be contacted on Tel: 01369-820172;

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