Last updated on November 26th, 2022 at 04:44 pm
We were on holiday in the US when my daughter started telling us she was struggling to breathe. At first, we thought it was the heat.
We arranged an asthma test when we returned home but gradually over the next few weeks and days, her symptoms seemed to escalate. She started to display a whole range of health-related anxieties from worrying that she might have a heart attack to thinking she might choke on her saliva.
Reassurance didn’t work and she repeatedly asked to go to A&E or to the doctor. The doctors diagnosed anxiety, or more specifically, ‘health-related anxiety’. We were referred to Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) who sent some information and website links by post.
I know my daughter is not alone. Post-pandemic, there have been growing rates of children being referred and diagnosed with anxiety, OCD and/or depression. CAMHS is a good resource, but the waiting lists are long and I was told they don’t see children under 12 years old in the area we live.
I’m a social worker by trade and so counselling and supporting are tasks I feel comfortable with (although granted, it’s different when it’s your own child).
I suspected that I might need to explore options to help my daughter myself. With some research, I came across NLP. I’d heard of NLP before and had some sense of what it was. However, I decided to look into the techniques it uses in more detail and see whether some of them might be able to help me and my daughter.
Not sure what NLP is? Here, I answer some of the questions you might have about NLP for children:
What is NLP Therapy?
NLP was introduced by Richard Bandler and John Grinder in the 1970s. They first mention it in their book The Structure of Magic. Bandler and Grinder’s theories focus on the links between the brain (neuro), the language we use or ways in which we communicate (linguistic) and our subsequent behaviour (programming).
What does NLP stand for?
NLP, in this instance, stands for Neuro-Linguistic Programming. In another context, NLP stands for Natural Language Processing which relates to computer science and AI. Quite a different topic altogether!
How NLP works
Neuro-linguistic programming looks at how people view the world (what their ‘inner map’ is like) and the thoughts and subsequent behaviours they display. Sometimes, our thoughts and behaviours may be damaging or limiting to us as individuals. When they’re holding us back, it may be worth addressing them and trying to see whether we can change the way we think about the world and ourselves. This is the concept that is at the root of NLP.
In a nutshell, NLP focuses on how we might adapt the language we use to make sense of everything around us. And in turn, how this can change our behaviours.
Although NLP is not hypnotherapy, some hypnotherapists use NLP in their practice.
What are some of the techniques NLP uses?
Sensory acuity relates to how well we use our senses. One aspect of NLP is focused on communication with others and mirroring others’ actions, moods and tone of voice to create a rapport. We should do this in subtle ways so that it isn’t glaringly obvious this is what we’re doing.
Sensory acuity also considers the differences between individuals when it comes to communication. Some people are auditory in their communication style, some are visual and some are kinesthetic (absorbing and relaying information through movement).
When we communicate with a person, we should try and tune into the words they are using and use similar language. For example “I see what you mean” if someone is a visual person, or “I hear you” if someone is an auditory person who has, for example, complained about a partner or friend “not hearing them” or “not listening to them”.
This would work for kids just as much as it would for adults.
To reframe something means to change your perception of it. We might think of something as being a problem (for example, being anxious or over-sensitive as an individual). However, the problem could be re-framed or redefined. In this case, the person could be supported to reframe their anxiety or sensitivity as emotional awareness or empathy.
We can also reframe situations or experiences: did your friend really just ignore you, or could it be that they were preoccupied with something else or simply didn’t see you? Re-framing is about challenging ourselves to consider whether there could be other explanations – something we can explore with our kids when they come to us with their worries.
Anchoring relates to locating a happy or comforting memory and being able to attach to this in times of stress. For children, this might be a recent outing doing something they enjoyed, time spent with friends or family, playing a game or their favourite toy. You might also use anchoring to increase confidence. You need to identify your memory in advance and NLP suggests that a physical action such as pressing on an acupressure point or using your arm as a lever to imagine the feeling increasing is a good idea.
To create a rapport is to be responsive to someone and provide an opportunity to bond. Creating rapport might include noticing how another person is breathing and speaking and what their body language is like. Mirroring your child in certain ways may help them feel safer – for example, getting down to their level, noticing whether they are visual or auditory in their communication with you, and speaking to them using similar language. Once you’ve created rapport, you can try and help your child by slowing your breathing, lowering your voice and keeping calm, so that they then replicate some of your actions.
While we may not share everyones’ views, we can ‘fall into step beside them’ while they talk about how they’re feeling. Pacing creates a sense of trust and understanding and once the other person feels they can trust you and, in turn, you understand them, they are more likely to listen to your advice. A good start is to find some common ground. In the case of an anxious child, you might explain that you also once had worries and anxieties about certain things when you were little (you can then go on to talk about what helped you and how you overcame them).
Leading is what may follow rapport and pacing. You have managed to create trust and intimacy, as well as common ground. It might be helpful for you to now take the lead and positively influence the other person (if this is appropriate – see more on this below).
What is NLP good for?
NLP has been touted as helpful for depression, anxiety, stress and phobias. It’s a technique you can easily use on yourself once you’ve learnt how.
NLP for Children
While NLP is not going to be right for every child or every issue, NLP can be particularly beneficial for children experiencing anxiety or depression. It may also be helpful for children who are experiencing difficult peer relationships or problems at school – including learning difficulties.
An added bonus is that NLP is an approach which can be applied fairly quickly and easily. You can use the techniques yourself with your child at home to support them. Some of the books listed below will be able to support you with this.
You may, however, wish to consult a registered NLP practitioner if your child’s anxiety is particularly prolonged or severe.
Are there any flaws in NLP theories?
Not everyone is an advocate of NLP. Some believe that there is a lack of research and not enough robust scientific evidence that NLP works, unlike other approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Mindfulness.
While NLP might be able to alter a person’s state of mind or way of thinking on a temporary basis, it’s not clear how well it might work longer term. Nor does it really take into account the impact of trauma on the brain and how this might manifest and need to be responded to.
NLP does not look at the root causes of problems; it tends to dismiss these and regard paying attention to them as unnecessary.
For these reasons, Neuro-Linguistic Programming as a theory hasn’t enjoyed significant recognition in mainstream Psychology.
Read more here about how NLP could, at its worst, be used to manipulate others, using some of the techniques above, and how NLP has perhaps not adapted to take into account more recent neuroscience research.
What Do I think of NLP for kids?
I think NLP is really easy to understand and the basic components are a great starting point for anyone interested in personal development, interested in learning about different psychological approaches or wanting to find ways to help their child or others. Would I continue to use it to help my daughter with her anxiety? Yes, I would definitely use elements of it such as re-framing and anchoring.
Many psychologists, counsellors and coaches use a range of different approaches and techniques rather than focusing on just one and I believe this is the best way to go. Everyone is different and responds differently to contrasting stimuli. What works for one person may work less well for another and we have to remain flexible in our endeavours to help others.
A ‘toolbox’ of different techniques is invaluable and I’m keen to find out more about as many as I can.
I love the optimism and energy of NLP. Essentially, I agree with many of its concepts. I think it’s always helpful to tune into how other people are communicating. Building trust through rapport is essential if you want to help someone. Re-framing is such an important idea to teach our kids – it’s very easy to think the worst and see things negatively, and when we do this we create a pattern whereby we consistently head towards this way of thinking. If children can be supported to play devil’s advocate with themselves when they’re thinking negatively, this can only be a good thing. And I think anchoring is the most useful NLP technique of all when it comes to NLP for kids. When times are challenging, we could all do with having a ‘go-to’ happy and reassuring memory to focus on.
In the end, what my daughter found most useful in relation to managing her anxiety was getting back into a routine. The school day brought her reassurance, predictability and a feeling of safety. I am aware, however, that anxiety is something that pops its head up on an ad-hoc basis and I’m pretty sure we haven’t seen the last of it.
I feel heartened by the fact that I now have some NLP strategies in my toolbox if I need them again.
Best NLP books for beginners
If you’re keen to find out a bit more about NLP, or you’re interested in finding a good book to help your child with their anxiety, here are my suggestions:
The Ultimate Introduction to NLP: How to Build a Successful Life – Richard Bandler
Story Time for Kids with NLP: The Little Grasshopper and the Big Ball of Dung – The English Sisters
Regulate Anxiety Workbook For Kids: 50 CBT Exercises and Activities to Help Kids Regulate Their Emotions, Focus on the Positives, and Enhance Coping Skills for Ages 5-10 – Grand Publication/ Sharon Lynn
Best NLP courses
There are a number of good online (and in person) NLP courses available if you’re wanting to learn more. All the sites listed below offer short beginner courses.
For advice on helping your child overcome the Negativity Bias, take a look at my article here.
If your child is more introvert than extrovert, there’s some good advice for you here.
A note: if you are concerned about your child’s mood or they are experiencing anxious feelings, always consult with a medical professional in the first instance.