Hypnosis for children – Pauline Stanton – Hypnotherapy Glasgow


Journal of Heart-Centered Therapies, 2011, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp. 77-85

 2011 Heart-Centered Therapies Association


Hypnosis for Children

Pauline Stanton*

Abstract: Hypnosis is often an overlooked intervention for children. However,

hypnosis is a natural state for children and can be used to increase the brain’s

ability to process and retain information. Hypnosis/ meditation increases brain

plasticity while using the natural state of the precognitive child to increase

brain function and develop brain structure which increases learning and

retention of learned material. It also decreases stress and PTSD symptoms in

children which allows them to achieve better attentional focus on presented

material. This connection between hypnosis/ meditation and brain plasticity

could be a valuable tool for the education system to maximize and develop

thinking skills in children.

Children are being seen more often by clinicians as they are being

identified as having psychological stress more frequently than in the

past. Many children experience difficulties learning and retaining

information presented to them in the classroom as well as behavior

adjustment problems in the school environment. This has many causes

but the root of these causes is often trauma of some kind. Trauma can

increase these symptoms in children. However, if treated immediately

and effectively, it can decrease the likelihood of becoming PTSD.

Hypnosis has been used as an effective intervention with children

to help them process trauma and it has been postulated that this in turn

prevents the onset of PTSD (Lesmana, Suryani, Jensen, & Tiliopoulos,

2009). Effective treatment of trauma and the use of group hypnosis as

well as teaching children self-hypnosis for relaxation have been proven

to be effective interventions for these symptoms (Hawkins &

Polemikos, 2002; Lesmana et al., 2009). Hypnosis also changes the

plasticity of the brain which helps increase the attention span of the

child (Halsband, Mueller, Hinterberger, & Strickner, 2009).

Brain plasticity is simply the brain’s ability to change its structure

throughout its lifetime. It responds to challenges and new information

by forming new connections between brain cells or neurons. This

ability to reorganize and adapt itself allows improved brain functioning

capacity which permits increased learning to take place. Brain plasticity

is brain development (Halsband, et al., 2009).


* 1287 North Patterson Road, Liberty, IN 47353 paulinestanton@hotmail.com

78 Journal of Heart-Centered Therapies, 2011, Vol. 14, No. 2

Piaget’s stages of development state that children are

incapable of abstract reasoning until they reach the age of eleven

(Cowles, 1998). That means that precognitive children perceive

the external world as it presents itself to their senses without

categorizing it. They have little schema or background

framework in which to perceive the world. They have few

theories or expectations about how the world works, each

experience is new and with few expectations as to the outcome.

This precognitive experience of the world is very different from

an adult’s experience of the same world (Cowles, 1998).

This precognitive experience of the world allows them to

enter the trance state required by hypnosis easier than an adult

(Cowles, 1998; Erickson, 1983; Hawkins et al., 2002; Kakoscke,

2007; Lesmana et al., 2009). Children often daydream which is a

natural, spontaneous trance state. Trance is described by Shor

(1979) as the suspension of the subject’s “general reality

orientation”. The subject in trance no longer allows distral

stimulation to become the principal determinant of their

subjective experience (Cowles, 1998). This is similar to how

children in the precognitive stages of development perceive their

world. They view their world devoid of perspective or wide

abstract interpretive significance (Cowles, 1998).

For example, I see a tree and my conscious mind begins to

work. I first place the tree as belonging to the plant world. It has

roots, leaves, stems and starts as a seed. This is the beginning of

abstract reasoning and only takes a second or two. I then

progress to connecting this tree to my prior experience of trees. I

climbed a tree as a child, I fell out of a tree, etc. These thoughts

then bring in prior feelings which are currently being

experienced just by seeing a tree.

A precognitive child (before the age of 11) on the other hand

actually has none of these thought processes. The tree is just as

they experience it today because they do not have the ability to

use abstract thinking skills in order to categorize the tree and

connect it to prior experiences. Teachers of small children

experience this difference in children and adults daily as they

attempt to teach children to develop these abstract thinking

skills. Children’s lack of a cognitive schema in which to

organize their experience of the external world allows the

Stanton: Hypnosis for Children 79

boundaries between imagination, illusion, and reality to become

blurred or nonexistent (Cowles, 1998).

Milton Erickson (1983) says an adult in the trance state

perceives their world in a literal sense. This is like the world a

precognitive child observes; they developmentally think in literal

terms. Therefore if you say “Thank you so much” at the end of a

speech adults will assume they are dismissed while children or

an adult in a trance state will not move as they are operating

from a literal state of being (Erickson, 1983). Adults experience

the trance state as a way to focus without external theories and

expectations impinging on that experience (Cowles, 1998). This

is much easier for a precognitive child, as their daily perception

of the external world is similar to the trance state in that they do

not have the ability to think abstractly.

The trance state used in hypnosis is much like a precognitive

child’s natural state (Cowles, 1998; Erickson, 1983; Hawkins, et

al., 2002; Lesmana, et al., 2009). This makes hypnosis and

hypnotherapy a natural, effective intervention choice for

children. Research shows that both direct and indirect

approaches to hypnosis are effective in treating children

(Erickson, 1983; Kakoschke, 2007). It also shows that hypnosis

used in a group setting or individual sessions are both successful

and effective for children (Cowles, 1998; Erickson, 1983;

Hawkins, et al., 2002; Kakoschke, 2007; Lesmana, et al., 2009).

Group hypnosis has been used to help children recover from

PTSD caused by terrorist attacks (Lesmana, et al., 2009). It has

also been used to help children who have suffered trauma and

had sleep disorders due to the trauma they endured (Hawkins, et

al., 2002; Lesmana, et al., 2009). In the first study conducted by

Lesmana, Suryani, Jensen and Tiliopouls, children participated

in one 30 minute hypnotherapy session that began with

meditation. They were then instructed to go back to the first

traumatic memory that was associated with the bombing. They

were instructed to express any emotions in whatever way they

needed to while they were in the group. 77.1% of the children in

the experimental group showed improvement of PTSD

symptoms after only one group session of hypnotherapy while

24% of the control group showed improvement (Lesmana, et al.,


80 Journal of Heart-Centered Therapies, 2011, Vol. 14, No. 2

The second study was conducted to help children with sleep

disorders caused by a loss. They were first taught self-hypnosis

in a group setting by using the meditation/ hypnotherapy model

of trance induction. This model uses visualization to help the

children relax and to manage any anxiety they are experiencing.

The facilitator then hypnotized the group of children by using a

special place and a special pet to help the children fall asleep and

stay asleep while having pleasant dreams and awakening

refreshed in the morning. The children were then instructed to

play this game nightly before going to sleep. The results from

this study were positive with a decrease in symptoms of about

77%. These studies reinforce hypnosis as an effective group

intervention for children (Hawkins, et al., 2002).

Hypnosis has also been found to increase the ability of

subjects to recall information in a forced recall situation such as

a test (Fligetein, Barabasz, Barabasz, Trevisan, & Warner, 1998;

Schreiber, 1997). This is especially significant when it comes to

learning and retention of learned material. In this study subjects

were given a pre- and post-test. They took the first test without

being hypnotized. They were then put through the relaxation/

hypnosis session and asked to take the test a second time. The

second post-test showed significant improvement in their ability

to recall information. This could be because they were more

relaxed while taking the post-test or it could have been because

they felt more confident and comfortable with their ability to

recall the information. Either way the hypnosis group showed a

significant improvement in their recall ability. This reinforces

the idea that hypnosis, for whatever reason, makes recalling

information in a forced recall situation such as testing more

accurate and therefore promotes learning (Fligstein, et al., 1998).

Research has shown that hypnosis and meditation produce

changes in the plasticity of the brain (Mende, 2009; Halsband, et

al., 2009). These changes contribute to increased focus and

attention, as well as the integration of information between the

different lobes of the brain. This is described as an increase in

occipital and prefrontal activity in the brain during hypnosis and

meditation (Halsband, et al., 2009).

So far we have used several studies to prove that group

hypnosis is effective with children (Cowles, 1998; Hawkins, et

al., 2002; Lesmana, et al., 2009). Children are easily hypnotized

Stanton: Hypnosis for Children 81

because they are still in the precognitive stage of development

which makes hypnosis a naturally occurring phenomena for them

(Cowles, 1998; Erickson, 1983; Hawkins, et al., 2002;

Kakoschkle, 2007; Lesmana, et al., 2009). Using hypnosis before

trying to learn information that will reoccur in a forced recall

situation such as a test increases the amount of correctly recalled

information (Fligstein, et al., 1998; Halsband, et al., 2009;

Schreiber, 1997). Hypnosis and meditation actually change the

physical structure of the brain allowing increased focused

attention (Halsband, et al., 2009).

A third grade teacher with a Masters in Social Work

postulates that using short meditation/ hypnosis sessions in the

classroom can increase the retention and recall of learned

material and decrease negative behaviors in a group of children

(Halsband, et al., 2009). Meditation/ hypnosis helps children

process the daily trauma in their lives which prevents it from

becoming PTSD ( Lesmana, et al., 2009). This allows them to

relax and direct their attention towards the information being

presented instead of experiencing the symptoms of hyperarousal,

avoidance and anxiety associated with PTSD (Halsband, et al.,

2009; Lesmana, et al., 2009). Children have limited ability to

direct their attention to the information being taught while they

are experiencing these symptoms.

This short group session may also be beneficial in helping

children process trauma daily so it does not progress and become

PTSD (Halsband, et al., 2009; Lesmana, et al., 2009). Research

shows that if trauma is processed quickly it lessens the chance

that it will become PTSD (Halsband, et al., 2009; Lesmana, et

al., 2009). This makes this short meditation / hypnosis session a

preventative measure to increase a child’s resilience in any given


A teacher has used meditation/ relaxation sessions in the

classroom for the last 4 years. The children are first given a brief

explanation about how their brain works hard all day and all

night because they dream at night. The teacher then explains that

they are going to learn how to “rest their brains.” They sit in a

circle on the carpet. The blinds are pulled and the music started.

They are instructed to get comfortable so their brains can rest,

and then informed that their brain moves every part of their body

so if they start to move then they are asking their brain to work.

82 Journal of Heart-Centered Therapies, 2011, Vol. 14, No. 2

This is why they must get their bodies as comfortable as they can

in a sitting position. The teacher models sitting cross legged with

the back against the wall. They are instructed to close their eyes

and focus on feeling their breath as it goes in and out of their

body. This allows them to begin the meditation/ relaxation

process. The teacher then takes them through a short

visualization of their relaxing place, instructing them to allow

their bodies to become limp and loose like noodles. This process

takes about 15 minutes and then the children are allowed to share

or pass. This helps validate and solidify their experience of


The students write how they feel before resting their brains

and then write how they feel after resting their brains. Here are a

few of the responses they wrote before resting their brains. “I

feel tired, hungry, sad, and angry.” “ My nose is stuffy and I

have a headache.” Their responses afterwards are as follows: “I

feel like a new kid.” “My head feels better and it is easy for me

to do my work.” “My brain is clear and ready to think.” “I feel

relaxed and ready to think.” “I feel wide awake.” “I am happy

now instead of angry.” “My body feels cool and comfy.” “I am

even happier than before, I don’t even feel rushed.”

There were noticeably fewer behavior problems in the

classroom while students demonstrated an increased attention

span after the relaxation/ visualization session. The meditation/

relaxation session was intentionally done before teaching

whichever subject was particularly difficult for the entire group,

or curriculum that required increased attention span and retention

of material.

The standardized test scores in the classroom have steadily

increased each year this method has been used. However, this

was not a research project so there were many uncontrolled

variables. Working in a school environment presents its own set

of challenges and most of them decrease the ability of the child

to learn and retain information. This was just one strategy used

to decrease the unfocused behaviors in my classroom. There was

a noticeable change in the behavior and attention span of the

children, especially during the period right after the relaxation


The children themselves also noticed the difference in their

feelings of well being as they always asked when we were going

Stanton: Hypnosis for Children 83

to “rest our brains” each day and if I forgot they would beg to do

it before they had to get on the bus. This exercise was not

mandatory but all the children chose to participate and they did

not perceive it to be a chore. It was a part of their day that they

looked forward to with excitement much like recess.

Milton Erickson regards decreased movement as a way to

increase a subject’s focused attention. Using the terms “Now

look at me,” or “Now listen to me” is derogatory and does not

increase focused attention (Erickson, 1983, p. 10). Relaxation

helps the subject decrease their movements which releases

energy for mental activity.

Teachers often use the very terms Erickson (1983) has

labeled as “not being very nice” to try and focus students’

attention. Erickson (1983) says this is not as effective as just

helping them relax first. Focused attention is essential to learning

and retention, and the key to focused attention according to

Erickson (1983) is relaxation. Therefore I postulate that if

students are taught to relax, their ability to focus their attention

and their retention of learned material increases.

Erickson (1983) comments on how to use the double bind to

facilitate the desired behavior in children. Instead of saying to

the child “you must pick up the blocks,” he says, “I wonder

which block should be picked up first.” This question is a

double bind that forms a positive metalevel question that has an

ideomotor component, so the mind body connection required to

activate the action is present. Therefore you are activating the

child’s mind body connection because his body will physically

be ready to pick up the blocks without being instructed to do so.

This creates the double bind because the child did not originally

want to pick up blocks but now his muscles are ready to do so

before his mind has the opportunity to remember he doesn’t want

to. His mind then follows his muscles’ commands because he is

still in the precognitive stage of development (Erickson, 1983).

This type of a double bind is often used as a form of

behavior modification in schools to help increase time spent on

learning act ivies and decrease time spent in power struggles

between children and adults. According to Erickson (1983), this

is activating a trance state or hypnosis to increase desired

behavior in children. The arrangement of words in order to

84 Journal of Heart-Centered Therapies, 2011, Vol. 14, No. 2

produce a trance state in children is an effective classroom

management technique that could be taught to teachers.

Children’s brains are always changing and developing. The

greater plasticity in the brain, the easier it is for the subject to

integrate and use the different lobes of the brain simultaneously

(Halsband, et al., 2009). This is especially important for children

as their brains are still developing and they are making the neural

networks that will help them achieve these tasks with efficiency.

Greater brain plasticity relates to an increase in brain function

(Halsabnd, et al., 2009).

Meditation and hypnosis both increase the neural networks

in the brain associated with conflict monitoring, enhanced

attentional capacities and the ability to focus on the desired

information while suppressing the urge to focus on outside

stimuli. This is due to the increased brain plasticity that both

meditation and hypnosis promote (Halsband, et al., 2009).

Hypnosis has much to offer children but more specifically

the field of education as we progress through the 21st century. It

maximizes brain function through strategies that help focus

attention and retain information that needs to be recalled in order

to provide the schema for the next stage of information presented

(Fligstein, et al., 1998; Halsband, et al., 2009; Schreiber, 1997).

It can be used as a behavior modification/ classroom

management strategy to decrease behaviors that interfere with

the transfer of information during the educational process

(Erickson, 1983). It increases the plasticity of the brain and

actually changes the ability of the brain to integrate information.

It increases the amount of grey matter or brain mass. In this way

hypnosis/ meditation changes both the structure and function of

the brain to increase focused attention and retention of learned

material while helping the subject feel less stress and experience

a decrease in the symptoms of hyperarousal, avoidance, and

anxiety associated with daily trauma (Halsband, et al, 2009;

Lesmana, et al., 2009).


Contact: Linda Alexander, Tel: 0141 632 1440 and 07875 493 358, also linda.alexander@talktalk.net

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