Empowering Kids Through Imagery
Charlotte Reznick, Ph.D.
"This is my beautiful body ... I make myself comfortable with the green (light) around my body. A little tube connects to my memory ... and helps me to be more loving. And there's a little tube that connects to my heart and let's all the loving things in and makes it safe for me."
These words and thoughts are from a seven year old girl after two months of guided imagery sessions. A girl who had been labeled emotionally disturbed, who had been aggressive and acting-out. A girl who had been physically abused. A girl who could not, when I met her, name one good thing about herself.
With the help of guided imagery techniques, including learning how to relax and breathe deeply, Jenny* was able to transform her self-image and her view of the outside world from a scary, dangerous place, to one where she could feel secure, comfortable, and good about herself. Initially Jenny could not imagine herself in a safe place - there was always a man trying to break down the door and harm her. With gentle, loving persistence, and lots of positive images, we were able to transform her imaginary world into a place where butterflies were set free and her inner desert became a magic garden with beautiful, colorful flowers.
Jenny's experience, though extreme, is a powerful reminder of the effects of the stresses and demands of our complex world. How can we help our children cope with the daily, sometimes harsh realities of living in a society under the pressure of tremendous and unprecedented change? How can we help our children achieve their full capability under such circumstances?
The answer is in giving children a positive way to deal with the world and themselves. The most powerful technique to achieve this goal is guided imagery. 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.
Imagery has been specifically helpful in such areas as in developing positive social skills and study habits, overcoming school phobia, calming hyperactivity, coping with death in the family, healing psychosomatic complaints, developing empathy and sensitivity, increasing creative expression, and much more. A third grade student wrote in his evaluation of guided imagery training: "Guided imagery helps me do better at home and at school. I don't get as angry as I did. It helps me concentrate. And I do my best in class."
As with adults, guided imagery with children is a process that develops and utilizes the right side of the brain - the side oriented toward creativity, emotions, intuition, art, and holistic understanding. Imagery appears to use the same symbolic or metaphoric language as the unconscious mind, so it makes communication possible between the conscious and unconscious mind, in much the same way as dreams.
The basic guided imagery format in these cases has five stages: relaxation, induction, the main imagery experience, the return, and processing. I encourage you, if you are comfortable and familiar with the technique for yourself (as in guided meditations), to start using it with your children. Here is a basic outline that you may choose to follow.
During the relaxation and induction phases, children are encouraged to relax and quiet their minds. They practice the "balloon breath" which is basic deep breathing into their belly. Often it is suggested that a rainbow light come down from the sky and float above their head, with the different colors moving through their bodies to help them relax and feel safe. Soothing music is used to help the transition from regular consciousness to the deeper imaging state.
The actual imagery experience will vary depending on the specific goal to be achieved. Whether we want to heal past hurts, create a safe basis for emotional growth, or clear our mind to concentrate and learn easier, there are a myriad of images one can conjure up. Children might be led to a special place where they can be unconditionally loved and accepted, or they might climb a majestic mountain where they may reach a goal they design for themselves, or meet a special person or wise animal friend to help them with their concerns. Although there is no limit to the kind and variety of guided imagery scripts, the same imaginary journey can be taken over and over again each time with a fresh and new approach.
The final two phases, the return and processing, help bring the children back to normal waking consciousness, and help them to remember the experience. Usually, drawing or stream of consciousness journal writing is used as a catharsis for feelings that surface and as an anchor to deepen the effects of guided imagery. If it is a group imagery class, discussions often lead to a clear bond from mutual sharing. In individual sessions there can be interaction and feedback during the imagery experience itself.
If you choose to introduce these techniques to your children, remember that guided imagery takes practice and a willingness to persevere. Start in short segments (three to five minutes for the youngest ones) and increase time as the process deepens. You will find that the rewards of guided imagery will soon far outweigh the initial effort involved. In this fast paced, ever changing, and unpredictable world, helping out children to discover their own storehouses of inner strength, wisdom, and peace is certainly a goal worthy of our efforts!
*Not her real name
Originally published in:
Atlantis: The Imagery Newsletter, April 1994