Hypnotherapy treats children's challenging conditions and behaviors


About five years ago, pediatrician Jeff Lazarus was fighting a losing battle with plantar warts. He had them burned off and frozen off. He slathered them with a topical medication. Nothing worked.

Then a friend suggested he get in touch with Dr. Karen Olness, a pediatrician at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital who was successfully using self-hypnosis with some of her patients with warts.

She explained to Lazarus the difference between hypnosis and hypnotherapy. Hypnosis is a trance-like state of mind usually combining relaxation with concentration on a desired point of focus so that other, undesired, thoughts or feelings fade into the background. Hypnotherapy uses hypnosis as a treatment to achieve specific therapeutic goals.

Desperate for a solution to his stubborn warts, Lazarus was willing to give hypnotherapy (self-hypnosis) a try.

During the session, Olness led him through a guided imagery/visualization technique that made him feel calm and allowed him to relax his muscles, yet left him alert and mindful enough to carry on a conversation. Then Olness told Lazarus to tell himself that he would no longer "feed" those warts.

"It was not," stresses wiry, athletic Lazarus, "a wave-the-watch-in-front-of-the-eyes session."

When Lazarus came out of the trance, Olness instructed him to use self-hypnosis for 10 minutes twice a day to continue conveying the same message to his body that she had demonstrated. He was to call her back in a month.

"When I started doing self-hypnosis at home, I could literally feel my skin tingling where the warts were," says Lazarus. "I wasn't a very good patient; I only did it every couple of days. But in three weeks the warts were gone, and they've never returned."

An ah-ha moment

To say that Lazarus was pleased with his results is putting it mildly. Intrigued, he researched self-hypnosis and found that it was also being used to treat many of the problems he saw in his Bainbridge pediatric practice.

"I called Dr. Olness and told her I needed to learn how to teach self-hypnosis," says Lazarus.

She referred him to Dr. Dan Kohen, with whom she'd co-authored the definitive textbook on pediatric hypnotherapy.

Since then, Lazarus has taken more workshops and courses on self-hypnosis. He's become a member of both the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis and the Cleveland Society of Clinical Hypnosis. He's made presentations on self-hypnosis at pediatric conferences and at hospital rounds in cities in the U.S. and abroad.

But, most important of all, Lazarus has used self-hypnosis to successfully treat patients between the ages of 5 and 19 who have come to him with Tourette Syndrome (This neurobehavioral disorder is characterized by tics and inappropriate language, sounds, and/or hand gestures.), bedwetting, migraines, chronic pain, insomnia, obesity, phobias, and hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating).

While scientists admit that self-hypnosis works, they still can't explain why.

"What we do know," says Lazarus, "is that when you do a PET scan on someone who is hypnotized, there is a different kind of brain activity going on."

Practice makes perfect

Because successful pediatric hypnotherapy depends on careful patient screening and establishing good doctor-patient rapport, the affable pediatrician spends time getting to know the patient during the initial visit.

Once Lazarus determines that a patient is a suitable candidate for hypnotherapy, office visits are devoted to teaching the self-hypnosis techniques, facilitating practice, and motivating the child to perform the therapy at home.

"This is not cookbook therapy," says Lazarus. "Each situation is tailored to the condition, the patient's age and developmental level, his or her interests, and the ‘homework' completed."

For example, for a boy suffering from a cough tic who loved football, Lazarus created imagery in which the child took the cough, turned it into a football, and lobbed it into outer space.

For another, imagery was created that allowed the child to feel the same kind of focused, yet relaxed calmness he experienced when playing with his favorite toy. When the patient reached that state through self-hypnosis, his tics simply stopped.

"Self-hypnosis teaches the brain to talk to the body," explains Lazarus. "That allows the child to get better control of challenging behavior. Most conditions can be resolved in three months."

Not for everyone

Self-hypnosis doesn't work unless you work at it. "For this kind of therapy to succeed, the kids must practice," says Lazarus. "The more they practice, the better they get at creating imagery that works for them and the faster they can do it, too. That's very empowering."

The child must also be motivated to use self-hypnosis. Puzzled when a young bedwetter wasn't improving with treatment, Lazarus did a little probing.

"I discovered that each time she had an accident, she was ‘rewarded' n she got to sleep with mom and dad," he explains. "No matter how much parents and the doctor want it to work, it's not going to unless the child wants it to."

Peering into the future

Self-hypnosis is definitely considered "alternative" today (and consequently is not covered under most insurance plans), but Lazarus says that's changing. More physicians, nurses and social workers are coming to understand its potential, and more parents are seeking non-pharmaceutical ways to treat their children's behavioral problems.

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