Hypnosis Is a Safe Treatment for Children

By: RICHARD OBERFIELD, M.D. AND JESSICA GERSON, PH.D.

Clinicians have known for quite some time that hypnosis is an important adjunctive therapy for adults. We’ve also found the technique to be a valuable tool in consultation-liaison psychiatry for treating children and adolescents. In fact, our unit has treated young patients using this tool for more than 20 years – with much success.

Take the case of a 13-year-old boy we’ll call Adam. He was referred by his primary care physician for an unexplained weight loss of about 30 pounds, as well as burning and cramps in the morning that had occurred over the course of year. His GI work-up yielded little information, except that he had some degree of gastroesophageal reflux disorder. Adam also had a mild psychiatric history as well as some significant psychosocial stressors. His current diagnosis was generalized anxiety disorder.

Adam was seen for several sessions of hypnotherapy with a psychologist, who treated him with a modified version of a standardized protocol for irritable bowel syndrome (for adults) developed by Olafur S. Palsson, Psy.D., of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Int. J. Clin. Exp. Hypn. 2006;54:51-64).

First, Adam was taught a hypnosis relaxation technique that involved introducing visualizations of coating the stomach and intestine with smooth and soothing medication. After this, we had Adam visualize dolphins attacking "knot-fish" in his stomach as well as his best of friends coming to his aid eliminating GI symptoms whenever he called for help. (We used some exercises from "The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook for Kids" (Oakland, Calif.: New Harbinger Publications Inc., 2009.)

Adam responded well to the protocol. He began gaining weight, the pain subsided, and he generally felt better emotionally. We were able to resolve Adam’s symptoms without recurrence in four sessions.

Another case involved a patient we’ll call Rashik, a 6-year-old boy with trichotillomania. (He pulled out his eyelashes.) The clinician conducted deep relaxation exercises, and offered suggestions about ignoring the urge to touch his face and instead focusing on feeling relaxed around his eyes. In addition, she did some cognitive-behavioral interventions, such as prescribing the symptom once per week using a timer, helping the parents establish rewards, and so on. After teaching the youngster relaxation/hypnotic techniques, the clinician introduced a strategy that directed him to imagine and visualize the skin around his eyes relaxing and focusing on this, rather than pulling out his lashes.

Rashik improved markedly after several months of hypnotic treatment.

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