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Guided Imagery For Children Dealing With Stress

By Ashia James, PhD

Similar to adults, children can experience stress at home or at school. Stress can manifest in the form of anxiety, illness, or unconstructive conduct. Guided imagery and visualization can be used to alleviate tension experienced by children and produce positives outcomes.

Doctors have confirmed that stress can affect anyone, even children. Feeling some level of stress is normal but when the stressor(s) exceed the child’s ability to cope, the stress may be manifested in others ways, such as mood swings, acting out, anger, changes in sleep patterns, and bedwetting. Some children experience physical effects, including nervousness, stomachaches, headaches, and infections. Others have trouble concentrating or completing schoolwork (Lingren, 1998; Rutherford, 2002). Herbert Lingren, an Extension Family Scientist verified that children under stress change their behavior and react by doing things that are out of the norm for their usual behavior. “Reactions to stress vary with the child’s stage of development, ability to cope, and the length of time the stress continues, intensity of the stress, and the degree and support from family and friends.” The two most frequent indicators that children are stressed are change in behaviors and regression of behaviors (1998).

Preschoolers may react to stress by exhibiting irritability, anxiety, uncontrollable crying, trembling with fright, and eating or sleep problems. Toddlers may regress to infant behaviors, feel angry, fear being alone, bite, or be sensitive to loud or sudden noises. They may become sad, angry, or aggressive. Elementary children react to stress by whining, withdrawing, feeling unloved, or worrying about the future. Complaints of head- or stomachaches, loss of appetite, and trouble sleeping are also indicators of stress. Preteens and adolescents may feel anger for longer periods of time, feel disillusioned, lack self-esteem, rebel, or engage in high risk behaviors, such as drugs, alcohol, shoplifting, or skipping school (Lingren, 1998). Children can learn coping skills for stress through guided imagery and visualization. Imagination is a powerful mental function that allows individuals to review the past, imagine possible futures, and do things inside their mind that they cannot do in the outer world. The imagination is the source of creativity, problem solving, and planning and sets the course in the real world, if it is used correctly. Aristotle called it the window to the soul, since it always represents the internal reality. Einstein, late in life, said “Imagination is more important than knowledge” (Rossman, 2000). Children can be guided through imagery and imagination to change their attitudes about themselves, build confidence, control negative behaviors, and to achieve a sense of wellness.

Children with ADD/ADHD are often in a state of stress in school. They can be taught various strategies at home, school, or in private therapy to help them calm down and relax. Hyperactive/impulsive children, in particular, gain the most from learning techniques that relax their minds and bodies. They can learn to recognize their internal feelings, and release inner tension. These techniques have been proven effective in helping individuals to slow down, and improve focus and awareness. The techniques have also been used to empower children with a feeling of peace and self-control (Reif, 2002). One such strategy is using imagination and daily affirmations to help children start the day.

Guided imagery and visualization empowers children by giving them a positive way to deal with the world and themselves. “From preschoolers to adolescents, guided imagery can build confidence and self-esteem, as well as help children develop their own inner resources, and learn to express feelings they generally are not able to verbalize” (Reznick, 1994).

Imagery and visualization is not only beneficial in stress management and reduction; it can also sharpen children’s ability to focus, promote self-confidence, and help children develop self-discipline. It encourages their creativity to flow; releases their fears, anger, and sadness; and allows their trust in the inner self to shine and their minds and hearts to be in synch.

Six Practical Applications of Guided Imagery

Children can be taught to manage stress or work towards wellness goals with guided imagery. Listed below are six practical applications of guided imagery.

  1. Guide children in the use of their imagination to start the day. They can imagine a stressful situation that may happen and how they will react positively to it.

  2. Another good way to start off the day is by having children do daily affirmations, not only saying the affirmations but using their imagination to visualize the affirmation, “I feel good today. My body is healthy. I look great!”

  3. Ask children to recall or create imagery of humorous situations to relieve stress, anxiety, or pain. The chemicals released in the body through laughter reduce pain and tension.

  4. Conscious and controlled breathing can be used in cooperation with guided imagery to relax muscles and reduce stress. Children can learn to take conscious, deep breaths to relax and feel the tummy rise and fall as they relax. Show them how to inhale deeply through the nose and slowly exhale through the mouth.

  5. Children of all ages can listen to soft instrumental music or nature sounds and pretend to take a journey through a park, meadow, or some place that they feel is peaceful and safe. They can listen to the birds, a babbling brook, smell the flowers, or feel the sand under their feet as they relax and enjoy being in their serene, safe place.

  6. Goal setting is also an important element of guided imagery. Goals are the more analytical imaginations one creates that are intentional or purposeful. Good, sound, positive goals are productive imaginations. With goals, a child can move an idea from concept to manifestation. Goals are the short-term stepping stones to realizing dreams. Children can have moment to moment goals, daily goals, weekly goals, monthly goals, and yearly goals. As children create the images of their goals time after time, these images sink into the subconscious mind where programs develop to transform consistent images into reality.

A prime example of coaching a child through guided imagery and visualization in goal setting is questioning: Where do you see yourself in five years? What do you want to be when you grow up? In response to these questions, children may imagine themselves attending a science program with NASA, or studying Spanish in Spain. They may imagine themselves as adults in a profession that will yield a nice home, a nice car, and a nice income.