Adaptations: Yoga Calm for Children Who Have Been Abused & Neglected

Guest post by Laurie Schlosser, MA, LP

More than 1.25 million children in the US – 1 in every 58 – were abused or neglected in 2006, the most recent year for which data (PDF) is available. Those of us who work in schools, outpatient clinics, day treatment and residential treatment centers often see the effects of such maltreatment in the children we work with.

Yoga Calm offers a way to help these children find internal stillness even amidst the chaos, violence and trauma of their lives.

As Dr. Bruce Perry of the Child Trauma Academy in Houston has shown, maltreatment impacts children’s developing brains, and this has clear implications for therapeutic interventions. His work suggests that activities such as yoga, drumming, movement and massage are helpful components in providing replacement experiences that help children improve their functioning and heal. (For a good overview of Dr. Perry’s work, watch this video.)

During the first few years of life, the human brain grows very rapidly. When a baby is born, their brain is 25% the size of an adult’s but 90% by the age of 3. Consequently, early childhood experiences have a big effect on brain development.

Healthy development is encouraged by what we call somata -sensory rhythmic repetitive experiences – things like rocking, singing, bathing and responsive, nurturing care. Such input helps the brain develop in an organized manner. Children who routinely experience it are better able to regulate, calm, focus and learn.

So what happens to a child who doesn’t have these organizing experiences? What if the caregiver is unpredictable or unresponsive, or provides neither rhythm nor touch? What if the environment is unsafe, violent or chaotic? What happens to the developing brain?

Experiences of neglect and trauma activate the stress response – the body’s “fight or flight” systems. If the maltreatment is chronic, says Dr. Perry, the brain resets and acts as if their child is under persistent threat. As a result, a child who has been maltreated may have a higher resting heart rate and heightened stress response.

For instance, in my day treatment center, there was one young boy with a significant history of physical abuse who would become completely out of control and violent if I furrowed my brow. He’d point and yell, “Don’t do that with your eyebrows!” His fight or flight system was so sensitized by abuse, even the slightest perception of threat would trigger him.

Children with a history of abuse can find it hard to sit in a cognitive behavioral therapy group if most of their energy is spent staying alert for potential threats to their safety. Likewise, kids who never received the input needed to develop the ability to calm and self-regulate may sit with their hearts beating quickly, unable to pay attention and focus.

I was excited to integrate Yoga Calm into my therapeutic work precisely because it provided a set of tools for addressing these children’s needs. The activities help them activate their rest and relaxation systems, learn skills to find stillness within themselves and prepare them for the more cognitive portions of therapeutic group. For instance, sometimes a child may come into my group room loud, irritated, maybe angry with a peer. Yet just a few seconds of breathing along with the Hoberman sphere transforms them, cuing them to calm. Consequently, I routinely start my groups with Hoberman breathing, as it generally increases the children’s ability to attend and participate.

We always follow the breathing with a relaxation activity. Often, we use guided imagery, and afterwards, I talk with the kids about how we can use these strategies to find stillness inside ourselves, even when things around us might be hard or upsetting. I ask, “Why do we practice this every day?” and they say things like, “So even if we have yucky things around us, we can still be calm,” or, “We can use our minds to be calm.”

In addition to their calming benefits, Yoga Calm activities are structured in a way that we can use them to provide replacement experiences for children. For instance, children who didn’t receive the rhythmic experiences they needed when they were younger benefit from the rhythmic movement of the yoga postures. Similarly, touch activities such as Back Drawing and Back Breathing can provide replacement experiences, as well as give the kids practice with co-regulating with adults – the adult helping the child to regulate through calm, purposeful interventions, such as a parent provides their child through rocking them when they cry.

Some children might not be used to co-regulating with adults because co-escalating is their norm, in which the child becomes upset and starts yelling and the caregiver responds in a similar way, becoming angry and possibly abusive. Because Back Drawing and similar activities both incorporate touch and trusting others to help calm, they are a great way for kids who have been maltreated to have alternate experiences to what they are experiencing at home.

The rhythmic movement of the yoga postures, the diaphragmatic Hoberman breathing, co-regulating activities and use of touch are all ways Yoga Calm groups can provide input to the brain that children may have missed when they were younger – and facilitate just a few moments of stillness in their sometimes chaotic and violent lives.

Laurie Schlosser, MA, LP, is a Certified Yoga Calm Instructor and licensed child psychologist who has been working with children and families for over 15 years. She has a degree in child development and a masters in psychology, and is currently affiliated with the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children’s Hospital in Minneapolis. She will be presenting at Yoga Calm’s Wisconsin Summer Intensive (PDF) this August.

Top image by eric pas d’accent, via Flickr

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