Laurence Irwin Sugarman M.D.

On and Off the Spectrum


The Wonderful Wizarding World of Hypnosis with Children

Clinical hypnosis with children is gaining ground as practical magic.

Posted Jul 14, 2015

“Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our greatest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” —Marianne Williamson.

I confess that I am reading all of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, in order, again. I also confess that I do not know how many times I have already done this. I do read other stuff. It’s just that I find new meaning in this series of books every time. It’s in the clever symbology, the battles between exclusionary fundamentalism and inclusive liberalism, and, of course, and the development of Harry’s resilience from childhood to adulthood.

Source: niderlander/Shutterstock

This time around, the overarching metaphor of an unrecognized, parallel, concurrent wizarding world, both coexisting and clashing with our own mundane, predictable view of things, is compelling to me. It is a matching metaphor for the field of professional clinical hypnosis with children in which my colleagues and I live.

For those who are unaware, Rowling’s Potter books are a contemporary coming-of-age saga about a British boy wizard who is destined to play a pivotal role in the evolving, then dramatically resolving conflict between social factions within the “magical world.” While the focus of the tale is young Harry’s life, there is an intriguing, constant, and often humorous tension between the magical and non-magical, a.k.a. “muggle” worlds. It is that background that is the metaphor for the role of clinical hypnosis and the larger field of psychophysiological self-regulation—as compared to traditional Western methods in healing and health.

Since Scottish surgeon James Braid first penned the term “hypnosis” in the 1840s, it has been derided as quackery, at least, and evil influence—Svengali in DuMarier’s Trilby—at worst. Like the magic in Potter’s world, it has been feared, misrepresented, misused, misapplied, and certainly misunderstood. There is no question that we humans are, perhaps uniquely, capable of hurting ourselves and each other in ingenious ways.

But, at its core, the practice of clinical hypnosis—and the larger field of psychophysiological self-regulation—is about using our powerful experiential resources to change ourselves for the better, from the inside out. This is a positive and hopeful perspective on the human condition. Teaching people, especially children, to use their imaginations to diminish suffering successfully, enhance healing, and build resilience is not just heartening; it is, well, magical.

Medical and mental health professionals have been studying and learning skills in clinical hypnosis for over 250 years. The first International Meeting on Clinical Hypnosis was held in Paris in 1898 and attended by the likes of Charcot, Janet, Freud, and Breuer. In the United States, the Society for Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis was formed in 1949, primarily as an academic organization. Its more clinically oriented sister, the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, was established under the direction of Milton H. Erickson in 1957. Since 1979, The Milton H. Erickson Foundation has produced publications and workshops in clinical hypnosis adherent to Erickson’s innovative principles.

In 1987, the Society of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics hosted a three-day pediatric hypnosis workshop for child health care professionals, then continued to do so annually for the next 21 years. In 2010, under the direction of Daniel Kohen and Pamela Kaiser, a National Pediatric Hypnosis Training Institute was born, primarily to continue to offer, refine, and promote the integration of clinical hypnosis skills into the health care of children.

This cursory overview of the organizational evolution of professional development in hypnosis with children cannot do justice to the tens of thousands of caring professionals—learners and leaders alike—who have dedicated time and passion to this field. To get a deeper glimpse of the progress in hypnosis with children, readers are encouraged to peruse the recent review by Kohen and Kaiser (references below).

This history is worth mentioning, because it is largely outside the radar of the health care establishment, yet it occurs within it. The skills of hypnosis taught and studied by these “Wizarding” organizations integrate smoothly—and often subtly—into traditional forms of care. Clinical hypnosis skills involve listening carefully, attending to shifting states of awareness of patients and clients, and crafting language—both verbal and nonverbal—to evoke images and experiences that create therapeutic change.

Clinical hypnosis is the practice of beneficial social influence, one-on-one. Since most of that effect occurs outside of the client’s or patient's conscious awareness—or, more accurately, within their unconscious mind—it feels non-volitional, even magical.

Very much like the magical training in Rowling’s books, this professional skill development involves years of rigorous supervision in the careful attention to the details of communication, clinical strategies, and, most significantly, an understanding of therapeutic relationships: rapport. Communication and relationships are elements in all health care interactions. Hypnosis raises them to an art form. As my colleague, Rev. James Warnke, says, “Hypnosis is art and science masquerading as conversation.”

We are only magical beings to the extent that we do not realize how powerful we are. Clinical hypnosis is best practiced when it is client- or patient-centered—when the client or patient comes to understand that they have done the changing within themselves. They own it.

Hypnosis with children of any age appeals to our need for autonomy—for authoring our own ideas. Evoking recollections, each as unique as the child, of exciting, comforting, and creative experiences that in turn replace pain, unwind anxiety, improve performance, or allow a 12-year-old boy to confidently keep his bed dry all night long, is as thrilling for the clinician as it is for the child.

The capstone is when children understand that they did it themselves. They have learned to be resilient in that effort. I have often been enriched in this process. The kids are really the magical ones. I get to be the sorcerer’s apprentice.

It is unfortunate that this approach often contrasts with the traditional Western medical model that relies upon medication, surgery, and the application of external or "allopathic" treatments. Clearly, our hypnotic influence plays a powerful role in how well these allopathic therapies work. It forms a basis for the placebo effect, for example (see Frisaldi, Piedimonte & Benedetti, below). How the clinical hypnosis skills used by the health care professional to prescribe the medication, explain the surgical experience, teach the physical therapy, and even do the cognitive-behavioral therapy is at least as important as what that therapy entails.

The unresolved tension between Rowling’s magical and muggle worlds serves as a useful and suspenseful literary device. But this is where the parallel, hopefully, ends. It is only “magical” while it is mysterious and alien. Our rapidly progressing understanding of neurophysiological plasticity—how we change our minds—and interpersonal neurobiology—how we change each other’s minds—are demystifying the magic and its power. This is driving more systemic and less categorical perspectives on how we work.

Our university students destined for health professions are not only learning anatomy, immunology, and psychology but also how these systems interact, how our thinking changes our bodies... and the reverse. Finally, the artificial boundaries between the psychological and physiological are being recognized for the fictions that they have always been.

In this way, training in clinical hypnosis puts health care professionals at the cutting edge of progressive practice. For those readers who are licensed professionals with a masters or doctorate in mental and/or medical health, I encourage you to take part in the magical professional development offered by the International Society of Hypnosis, the Society of Clinical Experimental Hypnosis, the American Society of Clinical Hypnosis, The Milton H. Erickson Foundation, and the National Pediatric Hypnosis Training Institute.


Quote: From A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles (1992) by Marianne Williamson, American spiritual teacher, author, and lecturer.

American Society of Clinical Hypnosis:

Frisaldi E., Piedimonte, A. & Benedetti, F. (2015) Placebo and Nocebo Effects: A Complex Interplay Between Psychological Factors and Neurochemical Networks, American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis, 57:3, 267-284, DOI: 10.1080/00029157.2014.976785

International Society of Hypnosis:

Kohen, D. P. & Kaiser, P. (2014). Clinical Hypnosis with Children and Adolescents—What? Why? How?: Origins, Applications, and Efficacy. Children 1, 74-98; doi:10.3390/children1020074) [Open access]

The Milton H. Erickson Foundation:

National Pediatric Hypnosis Training Institute:

Society of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis:

Society of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics