Working with Imaginative Flow

It might seem obvious, but the first thing to remember when working therapeutically with children is that they’re not just little adults. Their understanding of the world around them, their capacity for developing solutions and their modes of communication are completely dependent on their stage of cognitive and emotional development(1). Because of this, working with children requires a different approach to working with adults. Children respond amazingly well to hypnosis and, in the course of their day, spend much of their time in trance, using their imagination to rehearse skills, set goals and cope with fears and challenges(2). An integral part of childhood is the continual discovery of how the brain and body are connected. This developmental process is characterised by periods of intense neurological alterations, including reduction in extraneous motor activity, prolonged periods of attention and decreased peripheral awareness – all of which are characteristic of a trance state(3). What this means, then, is that the child is constantly in a ‘flow of trance’ and in this fluid state, traditional hypnotherapy protocols and inductions may not be effective or suitable. More traditional hypnotherapy approaches may even be rejected outright by the child(4).

We have a situation where:

  1. Hypnotherapy has a great track record in helping children
  2. Children are already involved in a ‘flow of trance’ – or hypnotic state – much of the time.

If the child is already involved in this ‘flow of trance’, or imaginative play much of the time, what is the therapist’s role? The therapist’s role is to enter into this imaginative flow and engage with it with the purpose of therapeutic intent(5). The existing abilities and imaginative strategies of the child can be gently guided towards a desired therapeutic outcome. The therapeutic goals may be very similar to the goals of adult clients and directed towards identifying strategies to deal with difficult issues, accessing and using inner resources, shifting perspectives and reframing negative beliefs. The main difference between working with children and adults lies in how the therapist works at a level which effectively empowers the child to work towards these outcomes.

Many hypnotherapists become so caught up in formalised hypnotic inductions and protocols that they miss out on valuable therapeutic time(6). Working with children requires a willingness to be led by the child, into his or her imaginative flow(7). For many therapists, this is a massively liberating experience! Because children lack that sense of a division between the imaginative and ‘real’ worlds, they tend to engage very quickly with your attempts to enter into and therapeutically direct their creative minds. This is in contrast to many adults who may go as far as to inform you that they ‘have no imagination’ and who envisage a very clear distinction between the ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ worlds. The induction – with adults – is often conceived of as a bridge to the creative and imaginative mind. With children, the bridge is a lot easier to cross. If you are a traditionally trained hypnotherapist, this might mean taking a step back, relaxing and trusting in the child’s abilities. In addition to witnessing the amazing transformations that occur for the children you are working with, the process of working with children is extremely rewarding.

The first time I worked with a child, I attempted to use a formal relaxation induction. I very quickly saw that the child wasn’t responding! I quickly abandoned this approach and realised I had no option but to trust the child, who kept her eyes open and wriggled about whilst I used a basic anchoring technique and CBT approach with her. I was left feeling embarrassed after the session, and sure it had been unsuccessful, and was quite amazed when her parents reported a huge improvement in the child’s spider phobia the following week. This was a bit of a baptism by fire – and I was lucky in working with a symptom which was reasonably easy to work with, in contrast to a ‘deeper’ issue such as anxiety or low self- esteem – but it taught me a huge amount about working with children.

Following this, I read and researched everything I could to do with child hypnosis and began increasingly to work with children. I love the process of working with children, the satisfaction and privilege of working within their imaginative worlds, and the rapid positive transformation that so often occurs – even when a child has been suffering deeply as a result of an issue. I also love the thought that I can help a child at a formative time in his or her life, before his problems become more deeply ingrained and longer lasting. The famous Milton Erickson often attempted to work with an adult’s ‘inner child’ by using regression techniques8. To work with the actual ‘inner child’, before it reaches adulthood, provides a perfect opportunity to empower that child for the rest of his or her life.