Effects of Yoga on Children with Behavioural Problems

June King, Australia

There are many reasons why children today develop behavioural problems. Needs of the young are no different from the last two generations, but the modern child finds himself in a society where changing marriage partners, intense materialism, television, the pressure to achieve and conform can prove to be an overwhelming stress. All these create an environment in which raising an emotionally secure child is difficult. Coping with and learning from undue stress is part of adult living, but for many children it comes too soon.

Children suffer emotional problems for biological, cultural or social reasons and frequently with a combination. Psychiatric disturbances in children may be linked to premature sexual maturation in which the nervous system and hormonal secretions are out of balance, or it may be linked to parental rejection, family repression or a chronic physical ailment.

Children who are labelled socially maladjusted or delinquent have often suffered early deprivation or maternal rejection. Children cannot express their problems correctly because their powers of expression and knowledge of their own psychology is not mature enough. Hence children usually express their problems in their behaviour.

Yoga in the womb

The emotions of the mother during pregnancy have an important effect on the development of the child. Highly stressed mothers are more likely to produce children who develop maladaptive behaviour, hormonal imbalance and endocrine disturbances.

If the mother’s body is producing massive amounts of adrenal steroids during pregnancy as a result of chronic anxiety, maltreatment or fear, the infant in the womb automatically shares in these stress hormones. They pass right through the placenta. The infant is locked into a free floating anxiety, a kind of permanent body stress. Locked into this tension the infant in utero cannot develop mentally or develop the bonding with the mother in preparation for birth. Physical growth goes right ahead while mental growth struggles along as best it can. If it does not spontaneously abort, it will be born deficient in intelligence if not body, highly prone to early infantile autism or childhood schizophrenia or dysfunctional in a wide variety of ways. The child must be trained in the womb. Life in the womb is more powerful and more receptive because you can change the entire structure of the DNA molecules.

Practice of yoga nidra during pregnancy helps create favourable conditions for uterine growth and development by relaxing the mother and balancing ida and pingala. Meditation also helps in the same way by controlling the negative thoughts and emotions. There are several asanas and pranayama practices which help, too.

The yogic household

Children are strongly influenced by the structure of their environment and the personalities surrounding them. The child principally learns from imitating our actions and psychological states. If you let your own psychological state get messy, it is instantly replicated in the child.

Children learn problem-solving mostly from seeing how their parents deal with things. Therefore, the best thing to do is to live the way you would like your children to live, find ways to make the situation more positive. A child is in a natural meditative state periodically. He attends out there, then phases out and moves within on a regular basis. There is a tendency to lose this natural meditative state at around seven during the shift to operational thinking. Unless it has been guided into a natural mature form, this natural process can be lost. If the parent is meditating, the child will pattern that adult meditation. When the child makes it into operational thinking or the first stages of abstract thinking and has a structured form of meditation pattern established, he will be able to shift back and forth between the various states of consciousness.

Imitation behaviour seems to be a natural reflex or instinct which is present within one year, therefore the best teaching method for children from four months to three years would be the parents themselves doing yoga. For children aged between two and six, yoga can be presented in the form of play, but behind the actuality of play there has to be a clear theory of how a mind and personality might grow. If the child grows up in a yogic household he would have a good chance to grow into a problem-free adult. This means your child should become your sadhana.

Yoga in schools

It has been found that when students discover that they will not be criticized or excluded, their whole attitude toward the use of their bodies changes. They become more involved, less self-conscious. In competitive sports often the child is made to feel inadequate and gets labelled ‘unathletic’, which can form deep complexes that show up in later life. Yoga is enjoyed by children. They can move easily into the asanas while developing their balance and relaxing their muscles. The children would become better balanced and easier to control and would not be left with a sense of inadequacy.

Influence of the pineal gland

In a child at the age of seven or eight the system goes through an enormous change, as the pineal gland starts to decay. If the health of the pineal gland is maintained for a few more years of adolescence, then the emotional development of the child is delayed, preventing premature emotional reactions, and they are able to develop into a boy or girl with a balanced outlook.

When the physical, mental and emotional development of the child is not synchronous, it can result in diseases such as diabetes, epileptic fits and psychological disturbances. Such children do not understand the meaning of discipline and become terrorists in society. Due to the high level of disturbing hormones in the blood at the degeneration of the pineal gland, there is an imbalance between the mental and vital fields. They are unable to coordinate with each other and glands such as the thyroid and adrenals do not work in coordination. So, disruptive behaviour is often seen at this age. Yogasanas in general and concentration practices in particular maintain the health of the pineal gland.

Yoga as a direct way of helping children with problems

In yogic terminology, emotional disturbance is the result of imbalance between manas shakti and prana shakti. Excess mental energy and lack of prana causes withdrawal, depression, anxiety, and lethargy. If the child has excess prana and not enough manas shakti, he will become destructive and disruptive. Such children can benefit from yogic discipline. Pranayama together with asanas work directly on the brain and the endocrine system, therefore on the mind and emotional levels of the child, helping to re-establish harmony. The disturbed child also needs to alleviate his anxiety and guilt, and drop his defence mechanisms so that normal personality growth can continue. Yoga nidra will release the repressed feelings from the unconscious levels of the mind.

Antisocial behaviour reflects a lack of conscience and a need for love. We can teach the child through yoga techniques how to resolve personal conflicts. Many delinquent children have pent-up feelings of anger and aggression. For them karma yoga can help to release and re-channel their energies in a more constructive way.

For a child who suffers extreme anger, shashankasana is most helpful. This helps the flow of excess hormones from the adrenal glands which are responsible for self-control. This will also overcome irrational fears and other upsets. For emotionally distressed children who find inactivity almost unbearable, a combination of movements such as surya namaskara will be a good practice to use before yoga nidra.

The thyroid gland has a profound influence on the physical, emotional and mental development of the child. The practice of sarvangasana influences the secretions of the thyroid. Through the practice of pranayama the child can be helped to integrate all the forces of his personality. If a child is not able to concentrate or obey his parents or develop his social consciousness, it does not mean he is ‘bad’; it means he is not capable. Through the practices of yoga the brain can be re-adjusted and made to work more efficiently.

In dealing with emotionally unstable children we must remember that they are not necessarily receptive, cooperative or obedient. Therefore, one must remain objective and introduce the techniques so they appeal to the imagination of the child. If the child experiences even a brief period of mental relaxation he will gain some insight into his own behaviour.

Young people are prone to experiences which could be termed spiritual or transpersonal, especially during adolescence. A greatly increased appreciation of nature, beauty and recognition of the inner-connectedness of life and the value of loving one’s fellow beings is experienced. Such visions may conflict sharply with their experience of everyday life. This duality can lead to a sense of meaninglessness and psychological dissonance. This still developing personality seems woefully inadequate to cope and thus can cause the adolescent to lash out and reject authority. The other direction it may take is an existential crisis, challenging the very meaning of life and human existence. Without a creative and healthy means for resolving these issues they will often turn to alcohol and drugs in a desperate attempt to escape or discover themselves. Meditation can contribute to mental development and a clearer sense of identity and spiritual unfolding.

Some successful work done with children

A yoga camp was held in Quebec for twenty children aged five-fifteen with problems ranging from emotionally disturbed, learning disabilities and behaviour problems. The camp experience was based on Behavioural Modification. Learning disability treatment and yoga principles of health were used. All children improved in their specific areas of disability, some significantly while for others the result was positive, but not pronounced. They showed greater body awareness. The most outstanding changes occurred in their behaviour. All the misbehaviours that these youngsters had been exhibiting were no longer in evidence.

Studies conducted in the US and Europe with hyperactive children who were taught yoga nidra displayed significantly decreased hyperactivity levels, improved attention span, decreased fidgeting, fewer random movements, noises and actions, and reduced levels of skeletal muscle tension.