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Mind Over Matter: 4 Mind-Body Therapies for Kids

Sometimes, it’s hard for kids to relax and just be, well, kids. “Many children suffer from worry because of school pressures,” says Lisa Spillane, author of Six Healing Sounds with Lisa and Ted: Qigong for Children. “Add to that busy schedules and overstimulation from TV and computers, and you’ve got a recipe for anxiety.” This stress might not only affect your child mentally, it can have physical consequences too, like upset stomach or thumb sucking as a means of comfort. One thing to consider as you search for a stress-busting solution for your child: Mind-body therapies. These alternative treatments are based on the concept that since the mind and body are connected, treating one means treating the other. Here are a few therapies that can help kids become worry-free.

Guided Imagery

Good for: Test-taking anxiety
What it is: This program uses the imagination to “guide a child to a positive way to solve problems,” says Charlotte Reznick, Ph.D., a child educational psychologist and author of The Power of Your Child’s Imagination. Through directed thoughts and suggestions, a psychologist or instructor suggests images to a child that eventually bring her into a focused and relaxed state. Techniques often vary, but the key, for Reznick, is teaching the child to look within and connect with her own imagination to solve problems. “The imagination is very powerful and when anxious about tests, it’s the thoughts in a child’s brain that are creating the anxieties,” she says. “So I want to teach the child to use the imagination to help in a positive way.”
How it works: To start, Reznick will ask for specifics about the anxiety itself—when the child experiences it (for instance, is it as the test is being distributed? or the night before?), how the anxiety affects the child (trouble sleeping, freezing up during the exam), and how the child would like life to be once she’s mastered the worry. With anxieties that result from nervousness, like test-taking, Reznick will often teach a child to figure out where her feelings of stress are in her body. She’ll ask: “What color or shape is your anxiety? Where do you keep these negative feelings?” For example, perhaps the child describes her fear as a black ball in her tummy—Reznick will then train the child to breathe in her blue (or green or purple) feelings of calm, and breathe out red (or orange or yellow) feelings of confidence. “You’re teaching them a skill for how they can help themselves,” Reznick says. “And it’s something they can practice at home, and, eventually, they can do this quickly before a test to see where they’re feeling stress or worry in the few minutes as the teacher is passing out the exam.” Another technique Reznick uses is a special friend the child imagines who will help her through stressful situations—like a spelling wizard who whispers answers during tests. And guided imagery doesn’t only have to incorporate what your child sees, it can be what he hears or feels, too. “All kids have imaginations,” Reznick says. “Just work with whatever senses your child is comfortable with.”


Good for: Tantrums
What it is: This noninvasive technique teaches a child how to decrease symptoms of pain, stress, and other conditions by monitoring, via an instrument, her own physical responses (like body temperature and heart rate) to her symptoms, says Scheherazade Shamsavari, Ph.D., chair of the Child and Adolescent Health Section of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback.
How it works: A child is hooked up to a machine via sensors that monitor physiological activity. He or she will then play a game on a computer, specifically designed for biofeedback. So if your child is prone to lashing out in frustration, one of the games Shamsavari might use involves directing a hot air balloon through the air; the child’s body functions are monitored on the computer and show up on the screen for her to see. If she starts to lose control of those functions (for example, her heart rate starts to rise because she’s annoyed), the balloon will be harder to control, and she may crash it into a building, costing her points (the goal is 100 points). The child can see her heart rate rising on the screen, and through breathing and relaxation techniques practiced in therapy sessions, learns to control her physical response. Once kids see this feedback, they “become very connected mentally and physically, and they see that they themselves can make changes to their physical or mental states and apply these learned techniques outside the office,” says Shamsavari. “This is really empowering for kids.”


Good for: Stress-induced bellyaches
What it is: Qigong (pronounced “chee gung”) is an ancient Chinese practice that transforms negative feelings into positive ones through simple breathing techniques, physical exercises, and meditation. “In traditional Chinese medicine, blockages to the flow of your qi, or energy, are considered to be the root cause of all illnesses,” says Spillane. “It’s believed that these blockages are caused by the effect of storing an excess of negative emotions in the body’s organs.” Qigong teaches Six Healing Sounds designed to release negative emotions from the body by combining deep breathing and smiling with visualization, gentle movements, and sound making. “The practice encourages children to connect with the beauty of nature and to look inside themselves with appreciation, compassion, and love,” says Spillane. If possible, qigong should be done outside to connect with the elements and beauty of nature, though it’s not absolutely necessary, says Spillane.
How it works: In the practice, each organ has its own healing sound, color, and set of positive and negative emotions—for example, the stomach, spleen, and pancreas are considered the organ system that holds the negative emotion of worry and the positive emotions of trust, fairness, and compassion. So if your child is stressed with school work or a busy schedule and seems to be complaining of frequent tummy aches, it could be the stress is manifesting itself in that organ system. A typical meditation sequence that Spillane would use for a child suffering from chronic bellyaches may include imagining the sun shining down on him, then, through a series of positive affirmations and deep-breathing exercises, he inhales the sun’s bright, yellow light into his belly (where he stores feelings of anxiety or stress), before finally exhaling his worries out of his stomach as a dark smoke. These exercises are particularly effective at combating stress, Spillane says, for several reasons: Smiling stimulates a chemical reaction that reduces stress, visualization of natural elements reduces cortisol, and meditation increases activity in the frontal part of the brain linked with positive emotions and self-control. While the Six Healing Sounds work best if you do them one right after another, you can do as much or as little as your kid’s up for, though Spillane recommends dedicating at least a little time to the practice each day—before bed is especially effective, since these exercises tend to have a calming effect.


Good for: Bad habits
What it is: Like guided imagery, imagination plays a large role in hypnosis as well—a hypnotherapist will bring the patient into a deeply relaxed, trancelike state to recognize his issues and then, through the powers of imagination, visualize how life would be without the physical manifestations and habits that stress and anxiety can bring on, like bed-wetting or thumbs sucking.
How it works: It’s kids’ imaginations that make hypnotherapy especially effective for them. “Their whole lives are open and full of imaginative play,” says Carmen Isais, a pediatric hypnotherapist in Davis, California. “And that alone is a form of hypnosis—engaging and becoming completely wrapped up in active play—it’s something kids do on a regular basis.” She says hypnotherapy’s deeply relaxed state is not so much like the hokey stage shows you might typically think of, but more about the “ability to perform without concentrating at every moment—like driving on the freeway and getting from point A to B without noticing how you got there,” she says.

To break kids of bad habits, like thumb sucking Isais will often find out from parents before sessions start what activities a child likes most—these will be used in later sessions to help create an imagined experience where he is engaged in everyday routines without sucking his thumb. To start, Isais will bring the child into a relaxed state through something she calls “full progressive relaxation”—this might include a story about taking a magic carpet ride and becoming more and more relaxed the higher he goes. She will then introduce a familiar space (like his bedroom) and guide him through a story that takes place in this environment, with the child doing things as he normally would. Eventually, she’ll ask if he’s sucking his thumb in the story, which, in this deeply relaxed state, he often isn’t. The story now gives his mind a memory of an everyday experience where he’s not sucking his thumb—something the brain can access in reality later on, Isais says. You’ll usually see marked progress after three to five sessions, though if habit disorders are manifesting themselves due to underlying issues (like a death in the family), Isais suggests continuing therapy with a child psychologist.

How do you help your child de-stress? Sound off in the comments section below, or tweet your thoughts to @KiwiMagazine!

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