Kathy Hegberg, M.A., creator of the FocusedKids™ program, has adapted Rick Hanson’s practices of Hug the Monkey and Pet the Lizard for children ages 3-5. You can view and download the practices below.
Kathy developed FocusedKids™ in 2013 to teach preschoolers basic executive function skills. Using puppets and simple calming and focusing techniques, kids learn about their brain and how to self-regulate and focus their attention. The goal is to positively affect early brain architecture supporting academic performance and healthy life outcomes.
Hug the Monkey
Why it works
Feeling understood, valued, and cherished certainly affects one’s happiness and effectiveness.
Unfortunately, many of us have encountered significant shortfalls of incoming empathy, recognition, and nurturance – or experienced wounds of abandonment, rejection, abuse, dismissal, or shaming.
Therefore, both to satisfy an innate human need for connection and to remedy old pain, it’s important to “hug the monkey” inside yourself and absorb in one form or another that most fundamental human sustenance: love.
In this exercise adapted from Rick Hanson, we use a monkey puppet to represent our “inner monkey,” that part of us that feels hurt or scared when something hard happens.
What to do
Share a time when you felt hurt or scared when something hard happens.
Explain that when we feel this way mostly we just want “recognition, inclusion, respect, and love.”
Then have the children talk about a time when they felt that way. Ask them what helped them feel better. And then share the story of our “inner monkey” who just needs a hug when things aren’t going well.
They can either hug the puppet, or hug themselves and their inner monkey, or get a hug from someone they care about. Talk about how it feels to hug the monkey.
How does the monkey feel now?
Fact: A hug causes the brain to release its “feel good” chemicals into our bodies. They physically help us feel better. It’s reported that our brain needs 10 hugs a day to feel happy! Practice hugging every day, throughout the day.
Pet the Lizard
Why it works
It’s natural to feel threatened sometimes. And if there are also hurricanes, earthquakes, mass shootings, or other alarming events, kids not only have access to this news but pick up on a generalized perception of threats from adults around them as well. They can be more aware than ever of the little primal scared place inside. In the brain, this is often referred to as the “lizard brain.” the part that evolved to respond to a potential threat and the fundamental need for safety. “Pet the lizard” is an exercise created by Rick Hanson to calm and soothe that frighten place inside us all. We’ve adapted it for kids using a concrete prop: the lizard (puppet).
What to say
Begin by describing the frightened little place in all of us that gets very nervous when scary things happen.
Introduce the lizard as the metaphor. We all have a tiny lizard inside of us, that gets frightened when it feels scared.
Have the lizard talk about what happens to its body when it feels scared: muscles get tense, it holds its breath, maybe hands cover the face, and perhaps tears come.
Ask the kids to position their bodies as if frightened like the lizard.
Now take three deep breaths and relax your muscles.
Tell the lizard that it is ok, and let go of tension in your muscles with each breath.
Rest in this position for a few moments.
Repeat during the day to release anxiety and soothe the lizard.
Some have likened the mind/brain to a kind of committee. Rick Hanson thinks “it’s more like a jungle! We can’t get rid of the critters in there – they’re hardwired into the brain – but we can tame and guide them. Then, as the bumper sticker says, they wag more and bark less.” Children love caring for the lizard. Their natural compassion and caring natures come out, and in the meantime, they are taking care of themselves. Leave time for hugging the lizard!
Kids will feel their bodies move from tense to relaxed. Practicing this, even when there is no threat, will build their body awareness and ability to tune in and attend its needs.