"Instead of having headaches, I learned to feel my feelings. My feelings are okay."
-Jones, age eight
Ten-year-old Ethan described his headaches as either "pounding cannonballs" on the top of his head or "humungous 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% of all school age children get them, while migraines affect 10% of kids - too many in my book. Both may be caused by specific stressful events, but can be helped-often without medication.
Pediatricians refer their 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 well between bouts of distress, as part of an overall prevention program.
Here are seven headache tactics to try. They helped Ethan...
An ounce of prevention: If your child is prone to migraines, talk to him about common triggers: chocolate, caffeine, cheese, and sugar; too little/too much sleep; bright lights/loud noises; stress; anger or frustration; too much/too little exercise; and barometric pressure changes. Knowing the triggers can help with prevention.
The power behind the pill: 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.
Create a headache journal: 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 the 0-10 scale (0 = 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)..
Ask three questions: 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), then ask: (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.
Ask the source: 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!
Use cooling colors: If your child describes his head as hot or burning, propose he imagine a color cooling down his boiling head. Start with what he imagines, and if he gets stuck, feel free to offer a couple of ideas, such as ice blue or deep forest green.
Melt away the rest: Propose the idea of visualizing the headache pain melting through her temple and out of her head. You can hold your hand about six inches from the source of her headache to give her a direction in which to send her pain-out and away. Tell her you'll help pull the melting pain out of her 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.
Charlotte Reznick, Ph.D. is a child educational psychologist, an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology at UCLA and author of the Los Angeles Times bestselling book, "The Power of Your Child's Imagination: How to Transform Stress and Anxiety into Joy and Success" (Perigee/Penguin). In addition to her private practice, she creates therapeutic relaxation CDs for children, teens and parents, and teaches workshops internationally on the healing power of children's imagination. You can find out more about her at www.ImageryForKids.com.