"Instead of having headaches, I learned to feel my feelings. My feelings are okay."
-Jones, age eight
10-year-old Ethan described his headaches as either "pounding cannonballs" on the top of his head or "humongous pliers" gripping his temples. He created a character for them: a muscular hard-hat construction worker holding an enormous drill in each hand, opening up the top of his head and drilling directly into his brain. The intense pain made Ethan weep.
Headaches are the most common pain kids have and are often associated with high levels of pressure and anxiety. 90 percent of all school age children get headaches, while migraines affect 10 percent of kids -- too many in my book. Both may be caused by specific stressful events, but can be helped -- often without medication.
Pediatricians refer patients with chronic headaches to me all the time. My experience has shown me that a child's imagination can help unravel many of the tangled nerves and tight muscles that result in headaches and at the same time, learn tension-taming skills that last a lifetime.
Positive images have a tremendous impact on pain when children are in a relaxed state. Focusing on personal imageries can distract kids from discomfort and allow them to let go of the tension in their head. It also gives kids a way to explore and express the hidden feelings that cause stress. Although tools of the imagination can be used on immediate pain, they work best between bouts of distress, as part of an overall prevention program.
Here are seven headache-prevention tactics to try! They helped Ethan ...
If your child is prone to migraines, talk to him about common triggers: chocolate, caffeine, cheese and sugar; too little or too much sleep; bright lights and loud noises; stress; anger or frustration; too much or too little exercise; and barometric pressure changes. Knowing the triggers can help with prevention.
Ask your child to describe how she imagines a headache pain-reliever works. Ethan described his Tylenol as a SWAT team that parachuted into his brain to rescue him. Perhaps your child can picture a soothing scene to help her -- with or without the actual pain medicine.
Have your child note the date, time and level of his headache when he feels pain, along with what he was feeling before the headache started. Use a scale between zero and 10 (zero = no pain; 10 = the most). When kids start to make the connection between frustration, say, and the onset of their headaches, it spurs them to learn new coping techniques (e.g.: relaxing breathing, meditation, drawing, dancing, something physical to release stress and more).
When a child is suffering, these three questions can help reduce or eliminate the pain. Have her do deep balloon breathing -- breathing slowly two to three inches below the navel -- and then ask three questions: (1) What color is it? (2) What shape is it? (3) How heavy is it? After three to five more slow deep breaths, ask her again. Continue to breathe and question in rounds. Her pain will likely diminish or disappear within five to ten minutes.
Suggest your little one talk directly to the pain. Ask the headache what it wants him to know, do or understand to release any more bits of hurting. Then follow the instructions. Ethan's headache told him he was under stress, and to slow down and drink more water!
If your child describes her head as hot or burning, propose she imagine a color cooling down her boiling head. Start with what she imagines and if she gets stuck, feel free to offer a couple of ideas, such as ice blue or deep forest green.
Propose the idea of visualizing the headache pain melting through his temple and out of his head. You can hold your hand about six inches from the source of his headache to give him a direction in which to send his pain -- out and away. Tell him you'll help pull the melting pain out of his head -- and envision that yourself.
With these few simple ideas, you are well on your way to creating your own family healing toolbox. Let me know what works for you. I'd love to hear about your child's successes.
This piece is adapted from "The Power of Your Child's Imagination: How to Transform Stress and Anxiety into Joy and Success."
Follow Charlotte Reznick, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ImageryForKids