Acupuncture for Anxiety in Children
Much of the literature devoted to the benefits of using acupuncture to address symptoms associated with anxiety and mental health conditions focuses on the adult population. There is evidence showing that acupuncture can help ease discomfort in irritable bowel syndrome, calm racing thoughts, alleviate headaches and restore sleep. The pediatric population exhibits many of the same symptoms; tummy aches, headaches, difficulty sleeping. What is different about this group of patients is that there is less literature available on utilizing acupuncture to treat anxiety on children. What I have found in my practice is that children respond very well to acupuncture.
Play Makes Us Equal
My family and I attended a movie at the drive-in-theatre one hot summer evening and while waiting for the movie to begin, my elementary-aged daughter made friends with some other children her age. Soon, there was a group of kids spanning the ages of 5-13 playing with and alongside each other. It was fun to watch the ease with which they invited new kids to join them when others left.
The game they were playing kept morphing as new children swooped by to play. I struck up a conversation with the mother of the two my daughter was most engaged with. She told me that she was their adoptive mother and how she had tried to enroll them in multiple daycares and nursery school settings, only to have the centers call to say they could not work with her children because they were disruptive to the class.
These children each had a traumatic start in life and suffered from multiple mental health diagnoses including anxiety and ADHD. This mother said she had to stop working and turn her living room into a therapeutic-educational environment for her two children. As she was telling me this, I watched the whole crowd of children playing and realized I could not tell by looking at the group of children who were the ones who needed specialized educational services and who did not. There was running and laughing and mimicking, and joy, but there was no sign that any of the children had behavioral challenges related to mental health.
Bringing “Play” to Acupuncture
Children are pure movement and quite often, they make a lot of sound too. It seems almost as though children feel the energy of everything around them and as a result are constantly moving and delighting in the sensation of movement.
A small percentage of the patients I treat are under 18. When I do work with pediatric patients, the treatment is much different than when I work with adults. Adults seem to absorb the treatment differently. An adult can lie very still on the table and fall asleep. Sometimes, adults will make the comment that they wish they could stay longer than their 45-minute session. An adult’s energy is slow to move. Perhaps because we move less as we age, this is what conditions our energy to move slower also.
Sessions with children are very short and we move a lot. If the child moves, I move with them. Very rarely do I use needles on children because there is so much movement in our session. I use Japanese style acupuncture tools instead. Often, I will let the child hold one of the tools while I use another one to treat the child. And if it is a child who has been to my clinic before, I may ask the child if we have done everything.
The child can then tell me what else needs to be done, such as cupping the face or using the bumpy dermal-roller to clear heat from their back. I never quite feel like I have done anything to help the children because the sessions are fluid and fun, however, it is when the child returns for their follow-up visit that I learn how much the session helped their condition.
Tummy Aches, Headaches, Disrupted Sleep
Most of the teenage patients with whom I have worked with have come in for acupuncture to help with feelings of anxiety. These older kids are able to recognize and talk about their condition. They are able to articulate the areas of their body they feel is most affected by their feelings of anxiousness.
The younger patients are not able to do this as well, and often, it is the parent who brings them in for symptoms that they may not realize is related to anxiety. It is not uncommon for young children to be brought in for acupuncture because they suffer from frequent tummy aches, or headaches. Sometimes, it could be for difficulty focusing in school, and other times, it is related to allergy symptoms.
I always start the session by asking the child what is going on and why are they here for acupuncture? If the child states it is because of frequent belly aches and nothing else, this is what we will focus on. I do keep in mind that there are multiple reasons for tummy aches or headaches and that a common reason is childhood anxiety. If I suspect this may be the reason for frequent discomfort somewhere in the body, I do not have to announce to the parent or child that we will be incorporating something for anxiety into the treatment. What I have found is that acupuncture is generally calming and whether anxiety is the primary complaint or not a complaint at all, the acupuncture treatment can be helpful for symptoms associated with anxiety.
All of us, young and old, have experienced symptoms that can be associated with anxiety. Young children who have anxiety benefit from play and movement. For some of these children who have frequent feelings of anxiety, it is important for them to learn coping skills such as deep breathing or focused listening such as trying to hear individual sounds in the room and focusing on just one noise at a time. Acupuncture plays a role in addressing some of the symptoms that are associated with anxiety, especially in pediatric patients, and can be utilized with great complement to mental-health services and standard care.
Jessica Peck-Lindsey is a Doctor of Acupuncture and Integrative Health and owner of Peck’s Family Acupuncture, LLC. in Waterboro, ME. Dr. Peck-Lindsey holds a Master’s of Science in Pain Research, Education, and Policy from Tufts School of Medicine and is Certified in Traumatic Stress Studies from the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute. With the aim of being able to better provide for patients living with pain and traumatic stress, Dr. Peck-Lindsey opened the Wellness Center at Peck’s Family Acupuncture integrating therapeutic movement, trauma-informed yoga, Reiki, Emotion Code, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and wellness coaching along with individualized acupuncture and massage therapy sessions. Dr. Peck-Lindsey can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.