How to Help Kids With Hypervigilance

Hypervigilance occurs when a person is constantly watching for potential danger and is preoccupied with unknown threats. It typically occurs after trauma and is a symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder 1. Childhood hypervigilance can become a barrier to personal, social and educational functioning. The inability to relax and focus on daily activities inhibits learning, social interaction and enjoyment of activities. Certain techniques can help children reduce hypervigilance and improve daily functioning.

Focus on breathing. Focused breathing may reduce the physiological responses of increased respiration and heart rate. Focusing attention on breathing also distracts the child momentarily, which decreases worried thoughts. Ask the child to pay attention to the air moving in and out as he breathes. Any thoughts that occur should be redirected to the breathing. For younger children, ask them to count to 5, as they breathe in and out.

Relax the muscles. Progressive muscle relaxation helps reduce the physical tension that occurs with hypervigilance. Ask the child who is sitting or lying down to tense up their muscles and then relax them one group at a time. For example, "tense up your toes." Move up to feet, ankles, legs and so on. Younger children, who have difficulty tensing up single muscle groups, can be instructed to tighten up their whole body like uncooked spaghetti, then to feel floppy like cooked spaghetti.

Listen to guided imagery 2. Guided imagery is a program that directs thinking toward relaxation. There are CDs and MP3s designed specifically for children. An adult may also read a script aloud to the child. Playing relaxing music quietly while reading helps minimize background noise.

Meditate. This technique, also called mindfulness, is more useful for older children. Increase the child's awareness of how "busy" his brain is. Talk about how, when it is quiet, his brain is thinking about what he sees around the room or what he wants to do when he gets home. Encourage the child to quiet his mind by focusing on a single word or phrase, such as "relax" or "stay quiet." The child may also focus on words to a song or poem. Practice this for a few minutes, as needed.