Hypnotherapy with Children and Adolescents

There are recorded accounts of the use of hypnotic-like techniques and trance phenomena with children as far back as the Old and New Testaments, as well as in the ceremonies of primitive cultures.  Anecdotal reports on the application of hypnotherapy to children’s medical and psychological problems began in the latter part of the 18th Century, but did not become an area of major research interest until the late 1950’s in this country. 

Hypnotic Responsivity
One of the important areas of research has been on the role of age in the development of hypnotic ability.  The consensus from a variety of normative studies is that hypnotic ability is limited below the age of 3, reaches its highest levels during the middle childhood years of 7-14, and then decreases slightly in adolescence after which one’s responsivity remains stable through midlife.  Hypnotic responsiveness varies across children and in contrast to adults.  Variables affecting responsivity include genetic predisposition, level of cognitive development, the motivation for mastery of skills and engagement in their environment, the capacity for imaginative involvement, fantasy and pretend play.  Additional factors affecting responsivity include the child’s attitude toward adults, the quality and history of parent-child interactions, and misconceptions about hypnosis, such as one may discover in cartoons and television shows where, for example, hypnosis may be portrayed as a magical, controlling power used by a villain against innocent victims.  Children differ from adults in their preference for certain kinds of suggestions over others.  For example, most adults respond positively during a hypnotic induction to the suggestion to close their eyes, while young children often resist such a suggestion.  Unlike adults, younger children move fluidly between reality and fantasy, quickly and easily moving in and out of trance, making it easy to enlist their imaginative powers to solve their problems more rapidly.

Problems Responsive to Hypnotic Interventions
The kinds of problems amenable to hypnotherapeutic interventions include the following: Habit disorders, like bedwetting, nail biting, thumb sucking, hair pulling, picking at skin sores; tics; psycho-physiological disorders where anxiety plays a role, such as, headaches, asthma, hives, and intractable itching, and sleep problems; phobias to needles and other medical and dental procedures; fears of animals or insects; management of chronic pain; post-traumatic stress disorder; and, management of emotional outbursts and behavior problems.  Performance difficulties such as test-taking anxiety and distractibility when studying or competing in sports are also areas where hypnosis has been quite efficacious.  Other areas reporting mixed results include ADHD and learning disabilities (helpful when focused on the self-esteem issues related to these difficulties), treatment compliance, as in maintaining a proper diet for childhood diabetes and obesity, and psychoneuroimmunological responses. 

Utilizing Hypnosis in the Context of Psychotherapy
When, after careful assessment of a child’s problem, it makes sense to utilize a hypnotherapeutic intervention several conditions must be satisfied.  Therapeutic techniques must enhance and strengthen the child’s motivation, sense of mastery by promoting imagery skills and fantasy absorption, and his/her active participation and enjoyment.  The hypnotic inductions chosen are based on the developmental stage of the child, as well as, his/her interests and style of learning.  The clinician creates a safe, comfortable relationship sometimes including the child’s parents’ participation.  Self-hypnosis practice is encouraged, but not forced.

As with adults, hypnosis is a technique chosen within an overall psychological or medical treatment approach.  It may be the only intervention required to alleviate the child’s problem.  In such cases, goals can be reached in as little as one or two hypnosis sessions.  Children, who have difficulty focusing and attending to the therapist, as well as, those children whose symptoms are expressions of family stresses and relationship difficulties, are unlikely to benefit from hypnotherapy. More complex problems may take several months or longer and include more traditional psychotherapy and family therapy treatment.

Outcome Data From My Practice for the Five Years Spanning 2003 to 2007
From 2003 to 2007, I worked with 22 children in which clinical hypnosis was part of the treatment.  The age range was from as young as 5 years old to 18.  Of the 22, 15 children were referred specifically for hypnosis.  The remaining seven referrals were for traditional psychotherapy or family therapy.

Of the 15 hypnosis referrals, there was complete resolution of symptoms in 7 cases, and significant improvement in another 7.  Only one was a treatment failure:  93% successful.
Average number of session:  6.7.  Briefest intervention: 2 sessions.  Longest: 30 sessions.

Of the total 22, 9 achieved complete resolution of symptoms, 11 significantly improved (even though 4 left treatment prematurely), and 2 cases showed no improvement:  90% successful.

Examples include:  17 year old, test-taking anxiety, 2 sessions; 17 year old, migraine headaches, 2 sessions; 14 year old, phobia (fear of vomiting), 3 sessions; 17 year old, generalized anxiety, 10 sessions; 14 year old, panic attacks, 10 sessions; 14 year old, picking skin on finger tips, 10 sessions; 7 year old picking on face, 30 sessions; 7 year old and 8 year old, both with sleep disturbance, 2 sessions; 9 year old, bedwetting, 3 sessions; 5 year old, hair-pulling, 2 sessions.

I will be happy to discuss these and other cases, where more extended family therapy, or individual psychotherapy was provided by me, with or without the use of hypnosis. 

Information culled from:

Olness, K. and Kohen, D.P.  (1996). Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy with Children, Third Edition. The Guilford Press, New York.

Wester II, W. C. and O’Grady, D. J., Editors. (1991) Clinical Hypnosis with Children.

Brunner/Mazel Publisher, New York.

Bruce A. Levi, PhD
Licensed Psychologist - Psychotherapy, Clinical Hypnosis, Training, Supervision & Consultations
Treatment for Individuals, Couples and Families

20 Bay Street,
Westport, CT 06880

29 Birch Hill Road,
Weston, CT 06883

Ph. 203.246.3309