You may wonder, “How does hypnosis work with children and adolescents?” Well, the answer is , “That depends.” It depends where the child or adolescent falls on the cognitive developmental scale. Of course, there are many other factors to consider in working hypnotically with children and adolescents. The importance of emotional and behavioral development is important! However, this article will focus on the importance of understanding cognitive development when working hypnotically with children and adolescents.
While there are many more developmental experts to draw upon in the field of developmental psychology, I like to follow the developmental stage theories of Jean Piaget. Jean Piaget was a Swiss clinical psychologist known for his pioneering work in child cognitive development. He studied cognitive development from birth through adolescence and adulthood, and his work has been instrumental in understanding field of developmental psychology to this day.
Piaget’s stages of cognitive development include four stages: the sensorimotor stage from 0 to 2 years; preoperational which ranges between 2 to 7 years old; concrete operations stage that include ages 7 to 11 years; and lastly, formal operations stage which range between 11 years old to adulthood. While no one develops precisely through the stages, Piaget’s work is considered a foundation for understanding cognitive development from birth to adulthood, with his work focusing on childhood and adolescence. And as I wrote earlier, I find an understanding of Piaget’s stages of cognitive development especially useful in working with children and adolescents hypnotically.
The first stage, sensorimotor (0 to 2 years) goes from birth to language acquisition. Piaget describes this stage as infants learning through their own sensory and motor skills and establishing capacity for memory and recognizing symbols to communicate. Early on in this stage, there is a period when the infant learns that an object can be out-of-site and continue to exist. For a period the infant experiences objects (mother) as “out of site, out of mind.” At the end of this period the child learns what is called “object permanence,” where the child understands that an object continues to exist even when he or she cannot see or hear it. How, am not aware of any licensed professionals who hypnotize infants or toddlers.
The next stage, preoperational, ranges in ages between 2 and 7 years.
Younger children are already fantasy-prone and have easy access to their imagination. Now, children are seldom still, close their eyes, or remain quiet during hypnosis. To communicate to the child’s unconscious, the Clinician properly trained in clinical hypnosis engages the child with stories and make-believe. For example, a child can be introduced to the idea of numbing a part of their body with the use of a “magic glove” technique. They put their imaginary glove on, the touch the spot on their body that is to become numb; encouraging a dissociation from pain. Suggestion are communicated indirectly to children through stories, metaphors, acting out fantasy. Fables and fairy tales are examples of the way underlying meanings are communicated unconsciously. For example, The Little Train That Could communicates nicely to the child’s unconscious the idea to “keep trying until you achieve your goal.” While, simply talking about the importance to keep trying when attempting to learn new skills would not hold the the child’s attention, whereas a story or metaphor will.
Adolescents on the other hand behave more like adults while in hypnosis. For example. they are more often willing to close their eyes, remain quiet, and still or motionless while in hypnosis. Suggestions can given both directly and indirectly in adult populations. Stories, metaphors, and other techniques are also utilized with adult clients are directed to the adolescent’s unconscious.