Eric had headaches so “hot” and painful, he described them as cannonballs pounding on his head – until he learned to visualize breathing in an ice blue color to cool down his hot headache. Missy could barely get herself to sit at her desk and homework took hours – until she imagined Albert Einstein as her guide helping her focus on her studies. And little Sara was feeling totally left out by her friends – until her imaginary wizard gave her “gifts” of a star and a heart crystal to help her feel better and love herself “no matter what.” These are just a few of my patients who are not only coping with our stressful times, but are now thriving through using the power of their imaginations.
For in our 21st Century, growing up is more difficult than ever. Children continue to be exposed to unprecedented pressures and they are not always coping well. As never before, children need to be equipped with internal strength and resources. And for parents and caretakers, raising happy, healthy, well-adjusted children often seems an overwhelming task. They deserve to know what works.
In my therapeutic practice with children over the past 25 years, I have found that many of the answers to life’s challenges lie within each child – that children can create pictures from their mind’s eye to heal their troubles. Through learning and practicing visualization, kids can develop emotional self-care skills to help themselves with a variety of everyday, practical concerns. If parents could easily and successfully teach their kids effective imagery techniques to solve their own problems, their world might be transformed. If teachers could help children access their highest learning potential, education could flourish and test scores would surely go up.
So many of you are acquainted with my work and have heard stories about the dear children I have had the pleasure to know over the years. Here is a concise summary – as a reminder and as a guide – of eight imagery tools that I have found most useful in assisting children in their emotional and intellectual growth. You can easily share these with your child clients, parents, educators and other professionals.
TOOL #1: THE BALLOON BREATH
What it is: A simple technique of breathing slowly and deeply into the belly while focusing attention about two inches below the navel. This type of diaphragmatic breathing centers and calms children.
How kids use it: Fifteen-year-old Terrance, who was frequently upset, was able to calm himself and reduce his stress from an 8 to a 2 (on a 0 to 10 scale) by practicing his balloon breath several times a day. He found it made him feel especially peaceful when he focused his attention on his heart.
TOOL # 2: DISCOVERING YOUR SPECIAL PLACE
What it is: A safe, special place inside children’s imagination where they can retreat, relax, regroup or even “space out” in a healthy way. It’s a place to pose endless questions about life issues, and create numerous positive, possible solutions.
How kids use it: Six-year-old Fanny had such extreme test anxiety that she cried uncontrollably, threw up and had to be removed from class when faced with a spelling test. She learned to create a comforting special place for herself and her best friend to safely study: a lovely place with rainbows and fluffy white clouds, a shiny sun, flowers in lime green and hot pink, and a star-filled desk.
TOOL # 3: ANIMAL GUIDES AND OTHER CREATURES
What it is: An inner imaginary guide – kind, loving and having a child’s best interest at heart – to help children tap into their wisdom. It’s often safer and easier for animal friends to offer solutions to problems in creative ways, than expecting logic and linear thinking to do the work.
How kids use it: Seven-year-old Sally’s unicorn, Sapphire, lives on top of the cloud in her rainbow special place and comes “every single, pingle, wingle, tingle night” to help her with her problem of not sleeping by sprinkling white powder on her head and slowly saying “falling asleep” as she drifts off to her favorite dream.
TOOL # 4: PERSONAL WIZARDS
What it is: Wizards come into play when animal friends “just won’t do.” They are valuable tools when something stronger and more magical is needed – at least in a child’s eyes.
How kids use it: Eight-year-old Bree was understandably distraught when her beloved grandmother passed away. An old and ancient wizard – wearing blue and silver robes with white stars – came to her. He carried a gray and white feather “all about love, hope and kindness” and when he waved it around, “made the bad all better.”
TOOL # 5: RECEIVING GIFTS
What it is: Gifts from imaginary helpers can come in many forms for different situations. Gifts are often metaphors, symbolic and exactly what the child needs in the moment. Gifts can be obvious or require further explanation by the animal friend or wizard. Sometimes gifts are hidden and need to be uncovered or dug up – sometimes they are right in front and unwrapped.
How kids use it: Twelve-year-old Dara, who a year earlier had expressed little desire to live because of peer rejection, now received a blue box wrapped with red ribbon demonstrating her strides in self-worth. Inside were five gifts for her blossoming life: a yin-yang symbol showing balancing friendship with her best friend, a yellow smiley-face necklace reminding her of the happiness she now feels, a heart-shaped candle continuing to bring love into her life, a diamond-shaped crystal creating clarity for herself, and a flower making life “even more beautiful.”
TOOL # 6: CHECKING IN WITH YOUR HEART AND BELLY
What it is: This tool is comparable to suggestions of “listen to your heart” and “pay attention to your gut feelings.” Children are encouraged to take a few minutes each morning to “check in” with their heart and their belly, and to notice what messages are there for them as they start their day.
How kids use it: Seven-year-old Sally’s jealousy of her younger brother was causing a lot of angry tears at home. She discovered her “good love feelings” for her brother were in her heart, while her “bad hateful” feelings were in her belly. When she asked, her heart told her she needed more time with her mother, and even though her mom was so busy, she could find that time by helping her mom with the baby.
TOOL # 7: TALKING TO TOES AND OTHER BODY PARTS
What it is: Here, children discover where and how they hold different feelings in their body – worry is often in the gut, sadness sometimes in the eyes. There is no exact location or description; each is distinctive. Kids then find they can dialogue between emotions and/or symptoms to find answers to their concerns.
How kids use it: Eight-year-old Robbie started to panic every day 30 minutes before school ended; he was afraid his mother was not going to pick him up. Turns out “fear and worry” were renting space in his stomach and by talking to these menacing partners he was able to strike a deal where they agreed to move out if he practiced his balloon breath every day.
TOOL # 8: USING COLOR FOR HEALING
What it is: Color has been especially helpful in healing pain. Feelings and symptoms often have different colors associated with them. They can be unique to each individual and change over time. One day happiness may be perceived as sunny “yellow” and anger as roaring “red,” while on another, happiness can be exciting “red” and anger depressing “black.” By learning where and how colors live in their body, children can use them for their healing advantage.
How kids use it: Eleven-year-old Nancy was referred by her pediatrician for recurring, painful stomachaches. Her parents were on the verge of an unspoken divorce and her body was suffering from their constant arguing. She asked her stomach what color she needed to breathe in to help her feel better – her stomach wisely created the image of a swirling rainbow to ease her distress. She was able to vastly reduce her pain by breathing in a rainbow of healing light. Imagery practitioners, you are now armed with eight simple, efficient and totally free options to mix and match – depending on the situation and the child’s favorite – to use on your own and with the families you reach. If a child learns one tool today, life tomorrow may be richer and easier.