NLP and Change With Children


by Lynn Timpany, NLP Trainer.


There are no references in this article.  I have read very little on the subject.  I am not an expert on children.  I don’t even have any!  What follows are learning’s that I have had from working as an NLP trainer with clients, who happened to be children.   So how did I arrive at this point, where so many of my clients are children?


About seventeen years ago a woman rang me and told me about her 9-year-old daughter who had severe anxiety and panic attacks.  The woman explained that her child couldn’t even carry a drink because she shook so much.  I said that I didn’t work with children.  She said they were desperate.  They had tried everything.  I said no, I had no training to work with children, and no experience.  She pleaded.  I said O.K.  She booked two appointments, one in the afternoon and one the following morning.  They had to drive several hours to get to Christchurch where I practice.  As the appointment began, outside was the biggest lightening and thunderstorm I have ever seen here.  I pulled the curtains to cut down the noise of the storm.  A tiny girl sat in a strange, contorted, kind of position.  She had sweat dripping from her shaking fingertips. (I too was shaking, and it wasn’t just good rapport skills!)  Her mother handed me a pile of files and papers about 20cm high, and said ‘This is what we’ve done so far’.  I glanced through quickly, grateful to have a chance to gather myself into a resourceful state.  The pile of papers consisted of reports and letters from all kinds of medical, educational and psychological experts.  It was a bit overwhelming.  I put the pile aside, and turned to my young client and asked.  ‘And what would you like to have happen?  I elicited her outcome.  The most important things to her were to be able to carry drinks, and to be able to eat her tea on her lap while watching TV.


As well as clarifying the outcome, we did a parts integration type hypnotic process with time line clearing and set a relaxation anchor.  I thought it went pretty well, given the loud thunder and flashing lightening!


The next morning they arrived late for the session.  The mother walked into the room first, and started to speak, but burst into tears!  As I waited for her calm down and talk, I thought of the pile of papers she had handed me the day before.  I realized that those dozens of reports each represented a huge effort on her part to continue seeking a solution for her daughter.  Each had involved a trip to town, day care for other children, money they didn’t have and probably so much more than I could ever know.  I felt such admiration for this brave and tenacious parent.  I was aware that I had almost refused to help, and resolved at that time that I would be willing to assist people of any age who wanted to learn how to be happier.

Outcomes: whose?


When working with children it’s a good idea to start by clarifying some things around outcomes.   The parent usually instigates sessions, and that’s the first important difference to be aware of when seeing children.


Parents have outcomes for their children


Parents have outcomes for themselves


Children have their own outcomes


Schools have outcomes


And of course, we ourselves as practitioners have our own outcomes.


Gain clarity, whose outcomes are you working with?


Clarify that with the parent and the child.



I mostly choose to work within the child’s own outcomes.  That means that generally I don’t work with a child who doesn’t want to work with me. I like to meet the child and talk with them about what I can teach them.


Before we start…


I offer an introduction session where I meet the child and the parent.  I find out what the child wants, and what the parent wants.  What are the pre-existing frames?  What is the child expecting?  What is the parent expecting?


Then I explain what the sessions may involve, from the frame that they will be learning to run their brain. I explain that they will need to practice some things.  I give them some examples, a simple time line or sub-modality experience.  Then I ask the child if they would like to come and learn how to teach their brains to relax more, or whatever it is that they want.  I am very clear with them that it’s up to them to choose.




…there is a lot happening during that first session.  The most important of the cluster of pre-frames and presuppositions are around putting the child at cause.  As the first appointment is arranged by telephone I suggest to the parent how to frame it for their child.  Of course the parent wants to help, and it really works to give them some suggestions about how they can do this effectively.  So I suggest they tell their child-


“Lynn can show you, how to teach your brain how to do more of what you want it to do.”


The presuppositions in that statement are useful for both parent and child to run through their neurology.


When we are spending time in that introduction session, we haven’t started yet.  That makes it hugely easier to gauge what’s happening, build rapport and pre-frame the learning process.


When they arrive for the session I will usually ask the child where they would like to sit.  I begin by asking the child what they are interested in and what they really enjoy. Never assume what a child might be interested in.  Often it’s very surprising. As we have this conversation, I’m looking for strengths, resources, areas of confidence and fun.  Often you can notice ways that their interests could potentially be built into metaphors for later on.  You can covertly set a resource anchor.  I aim to be in rapport, have the child in a positive state and ideally laughing before we start talking about the thing they want to change and NLP.


I remember asking a young boy about what he enjoyed doing.  I wanted to find out when he was confident and relaxed.  Initially he said there wasn’t really anything.  I encouraged him to hunt for something. I asked about games, computers, books, toys, and hobbies … eventually his mum mentioned how much he loved digging holes.  There was an incredible state change, as he began to tell me about the hole that had dug recently when they had moved house.  It was so big that the neighbours had asked when the hangi was taking place!  He was so excited about that hole.  We had a great time together.  Rapport was deepened (pun intended!)   I was able set a really useful anchor as he spontaneously accessed excitement and confidence, telling me about what he had done.  I also realized how useful a metaphor around ‘digging for treasure’ or tunnelling could be for this boy.  It’s incredibly valuable to do this process of accessing resource states early on.


As I begin to talk to them about NLP I keep equal eye contact between parent and child, asking each individually about what they want.  If taking notes, I would normally write more when the child is talking about what they want.  This unconsciously conveys that their opinion and ideas are important.  I ask exploring questions and really aim to enter the child’s model of the world and gain full rapport.


The pointing exercise.


Usually in that first session I guide the parent and child together through an exercise that demonstrates how changing internal representations can dramatically change the results that you get.  This kind of demonstration is used to frame the process of how they can teach their brains how to do more of what they want.




Clarify agreements around confidentiality with parent and child and discuss whether or not the parent will be present during the sessions.  Asking the child what they prefer is another way of putting them at cause.


Family as a system


A child is part of a family system or systems.  Often the presenting problems are the child’s conscious or unconscious attempts to deal with a tricky family or school situation.  Various communication loops, beliefs and expectations happen between family members.  I like to take the opportunity to influence that dynamic by facilitating some changes with the parent.  Some of this is overt and some covert.  It’s usually useful to give the parent a specific overt way of assisting the process.  Communication skills may be taught.  I sometimes arrange for the parent to remind the child about certain things occasionally.  This is framed to the child as asking their parent to help out, to make it easy to remember to do these new things.  Again the aim is to have the child at cause as much as possible.  I might ask the parent to assist by drawing the child’s attention to certain things.  For example I might coach the parent of an anxious child to ask the child, at an anxious time, “What is a nice thing that could happen?” or another question that directs attention to a positive possible outcome in the future.  As well as the direct overt benefit in assisting the child, this will also change what the parent is doing.   The parents thought processes and attention are dramatically shifted.   Effecting two places in the system is very powerful.


Covert change with the parent


If the parent is staying in the room during the sessions then there is a huge opportunity to facilitate useful change with the parent.  I often teach children processes, by demonstrating with the parent.  Usually there is a mirroring of issues between parent and child. So, if a child is experiencing a lot of anger, it’s likely that the parent is experiencing frustration or anger as well, in the same situations.  Parents and children have a deep level of rapport.  The parents of an anxious child will likely be worried about that child’s future.  In my experience, approaching this kind of parallel process directly can cause a lot of discomfort to the parent.  Explanations and frames that would allow comfort to the parent aren’t usually appropriate with the child present.  Parents are prone to feeling responsible for their children’s problems, so it’s important to support and empower them.  Using the parent as a demonstration when teaching a child is an effective way of assisting the family system to be more functional.  For example, if I were teaching a child a process for clearing anger, I might ask the parent if they would be willing have me guide them through the process, so that their child can see what it’s like to do it, to help them to be more comfortable.  Then I can ask the parent, if in the situations where the child gets angry, there has ever been a time that they felt angry at all, and then we can use that as a test, and proceed to do the timeline clearing process.


Language use and pre-frames


When working with children it is essential to develop ways of describing and teaching processes that use very simple language, and that are fun and intriguing.  I might describe a resource anchoring process as a ‘magic button’ that they can set up to help their brain to get a happy feeling.  A swish is using pictures to tell their brain ‘Not that! This!’  Internal representations are thoughts that give their brain instructions, etc.


Because of the huge power imbalance in your relationship with a child client, they are even less likely than an adult client to indicate if they don’t understand.


Using the child’s own words


When a child describes their challenge they use specific words.  A 6-year-old boy who was vomiting before school with anxiety talked of getting a ‘yuk-tummy’.  He knows exactly what that means and using those exact words will activate the neurology of the challenge in a way that others words will not do.  Using the child’s own words for the solution is also invaluable.  As much as possible I aim to be in full rapport and adopt their vocabulary as much as possible throughout the session.  It’s important to become aware of the complex jargon that sneaks into a practitioner’s language, and to use very simple words and concepts.


“This is what will happen…”


I like to offer detailed pre-frames of the structure of what we are going to do, the ‘big picture’, as well as details of individual change processes.  The pre-framing includes repeating key points and calibrating the child’s response.  As this pre-framing is happening, I’m layering in positive suggestions for ease and success, reassuring, and telling them what to expect.


Develop and use simple ways, using simple language, and metaphors to explain and pre-frame the NLP processes you are going to facilitate.    For example, if I wanted to assist a child with school anxiety by integrating parts I might pre-frame the process using the following ideas-


  • So you want to be happy and yet you get sick before school? Those two things are opposite, and you’re only one person with one brain, right?  That means your mind must be acting like there’s two things, and you’re only one person, so let’s do a process that asks your brain to notice that it’s only one thing and make some changes so you can be happier.


  • What I will do is I will ask you to imagine each of those two parts of you that seem opposite. I will ask you to imagine what each part would look like, and to ask each part what it wants.


  • When your hand is floating in mid air like that, the automatic part of your brain is holding it there, right? You aren’t organizing all those muscles yourself are you?  So your hand floating gives us a way of communicating to the automatic part of your brain.


  • There will be a part of the process where I will ask you to be like the captain of an airplane, letting your hands be on automatic pilot, and they will move all by themselves, and your job will be just to wait and let them have all the time they need to move as your brain makes those changes that you want.


  • It may feel a bit funny to sit there and wait while your hands move automatically as your automatic mind makes changes that you want.


Being a clear space, no preconceived ideas


When beginning to assist a child to change it’s important to be able to put aside any preconceived notions about what the child may be like, or how they may be thinking.  By the time you are beginning to work with a child you have already formed your own ideas from what the parent, teacher, other experts have said about the child.  These ‘good ideas’ get in the way or your being present and using your own senses to directly perceive where the child is actually at, at that moment, and what is appropriate to do, at that time, in the session.


Humour, fun play

 Adopting an attitude of humour and playfulness will assist the process to flow.  I have a couple of jokes that little kids like.  Also finding out what they find funny and being able to laugh together is really useful.  This needs to be balanced with being on track.  It’s a very useful skill to practice ways of guiding someone to be ‘on track’ with the session outcomes while remaining flexible, respectful and light-hearted.


Resource anchors

 I often teach children to anchor themselves into a resource state.  This I call a “magic button”, although I always explain how the magic works!   This is a great process to teach the parents and children together.  Parents will be able to remind the child of resourceful times, that the child may not remember.  I might use questions like “what do you like?” or “what are you good at?”


Sometimes I take the opportunity to asked the child to think of a time when they felt really loved, and how they knew they were loved.  These are good resource states, and covertly you can use this to draw the parents’ attention to the child’s strategy for feeling truly loved.


Use of therapeutic metaphor


It’s been known for thousands of years that stories are an effective way of shifting experience.  One can develop a specific metaphor, which has the ‘same shape’ as the problem Þ solution matrix.  The result will be enhanced if the context for the metaphor is one that is appealing to the child.  For example in the area of challenge keeping a dry bed a young girl fond of animals was told a story about a rabbit that had a place way at the back of it’s burrow that leaked at night and how the rabbit fixed it up by taking ‘resource’ materials, resources she already had, like clay and twigs  …way down the back… deep inside… and way down there… she made some adjustments… deep inside… solving the challenge, so it was totally dry every night, even if it was raining.   A young boy in a similar situation was told a story about a plumber fixing a plumbing challenge in the basement of an electronics factory.


Use of symbolic language


Often children use symbols and symbolic language to describe a problem.  Questions that facilitate change at that symbolic level are very valuable.  If the symbol, for example, of a ‘knot’ in the tummy were used I might ask questions that develop then evolve that symbol toward the change.  “What kind of knot is that?”  “What would you like to have happen with a knot like that?”  “What would happen just before that knot was un-done?”


‘Clean Language’, developed by David Grove, provides a wonderful model for exploring symbolic language and gestures.


Use Of Drawings


Drawings can be used individually or in sequence to access and enhance resources.


You can also use drawings to install and strengthen new strategies that have been taught.  Sometimes I ask the child to do the drawing at home, although there are advantages to the drawing happening in the session where you can use the wonderful opportunities offered by the ‘drawing trance’, making suggestions and facilitating interaction with the resource symbol.  Also, sometimes, new things show up in the drawings that are relevant to the situation.


  • A single drawing can focus the attention on a resource. For example a young boy talked of his anger being like a red thing in his head.  I coaxed his guess about the highest positive intention of the angry feeling.  It wanted him to get his own way, to be happy.  I asked him what colour the feeling in his head was now that he knew that old feeling wanted him to be happy.  He said it was like a yellow sun.  So I asked him to draw the picture of that yellow sun in his head.  As he drew the picture, I could ask him in quite a relaxed way about the kind of ways that happy yellow sun would want him to behave, even what good ideas it would have about how to be happier.


  • It can be useful to do a series of quick drawings. For example I often use the three drawing sequence of 1) problem 2) resource 3) outcome with resource.


The resource maybe an internal resource like ‘happiness’ or ‘confidence’ in which case I might ask questions to clarify the symbol the child uses for that and have him/her draw it.  The resource may also be something quite indirect and fun, like a cartoon character.  So a child having difficulty with shyness could be asked to do a wee drawing about what that’s like.  Then, what super hero or cartoon character could help with that problem, and to do a drawing of that character.  Then the third drawing could be of child in the challenging situation with the cartoon character helper.

Complimenting and drawing attention to the changes.


The Solution Focused Therapy (SFT) model has a great deal to offer NLP practitioners working therapeutically. With children I particularly value the SFT approach of drawing attention to the changes and successes, and amplifying them.  Where attention is focused is absolutely crucial in terms of the emotional and behavioural end results.  At the beginning of a session it’s very important that you as the practitioner are aware of and directing that attention is focused in some useful places.  This will affect the whole course of the session.  It’s also brilliant to model for the parent.


So I might ask a child at the beginning of a follow up session:


  • What has been better?


  • What do you think (significant person) notices that’s different?


If there have been set backs:


  • What did you learn from that?


  • What does that make you more determined to do?


When you elicit a positive change:


  • How did you do that?


  • You did that! Wow!


  • How did you know to do that? Good on you!  That was  brilliant!


If the problem is raised:


  • Just before we start talking about that, could I ask you, what has been better?

Future Pacing and Recovery strategy


As well as extensive future pacing of all the desired strategies and feelings, with lots of positive suggestions I also like to future pace ideal recovery from the challenge situation.  Then, if the old response arises, at all, they know how to deal with it usefully.  One needs do this carefully so that there is an assumption of positive outcomes predominantly, and that the last suggestions and representations are of total success.



With that very first young girl I worked with, I realized just how powerful and satisfying this work can be.  Her mother, when she stopped crying, that morning, told me that her daughter had slept in that morning, that she had been sitting eating breakfast  on her lap. Her hands had stilled considerably.  She wasn’t sweating.   These things were new, and these tears of the mother were of relief and joy, that finally, after so long, something was making a difference.


A wonderful ‘synchronicity’ happened, while writing this article I went out to check the post, and there was a letter from that young girl who was my very first child client!  I haven’t heard from the family in years!  Wow!  She’s sixteen now, and in the 6th form at school.  She talks of when ‘I came and got NLP from you’!  And goes on to say


‘I have enough confidence to get my license 1 year ago and tongue pierced and carry glasses of water, cook at any time, and am able to sit still for ages.  I have been diagnosed with ADHD! But I don’t reckon I am!  I have way more friends than what I had and I can make friends, no problem. I have applied for 5 or 6 jobs and not got any of them, but my time will come soon.’