Ulcers. Migraines. Panic attacks. Are today’s pressures slowly killing our children?
Tara Parker-Pope, in her New York Times “Well” column, recently profiled the phenomenon of “back-to-school” headaches.
“For kids around the country it’s back-to-school time. But for many of them, it’s also the return of headache season,” laments Parker-Pope.
While going back to school is nerve-racking for many kids (and their parents), it’s not the only time of year I hear complaints about headaches and stomachaches severe enough to cause families to bring their kids in to see me. Every day in my practice, I see at least one child suffering from physical symptoms of stress. Teens with chronic headaches, eight year-olds with recurrent abdominal pain, a three year-old with a bleeding ulcer. What’s going on?
Some have blamed our society’s new obsession with over-scheduling young ones. Judith Warner’s treatise on turbo-charged moms, “Perfect Madness,” takes parents to task for pushing their children too hard as a side-effect of martyred motherhood. School and travel sports teams have year-long seasons now, kids are booked several weeks ahead for play-dates, and kindergarteners have homework every night. While we work on addressing these societal ills – see my piece last month on the value of “free play” – we’ve got to find ways to help our kids build their virtual toolbox of mind-body skills to help them cope with life’s worries.
A few of my favorite mind-body relaxation therapies for kids? One of the most promising and appealing modalities is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Jon and his wife Myla have also published a wonderful book to teach parents how to work with their kids from this perspective: “Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting.” Yoga, guided imagery, biofeedback, music therapy – these too have solid evidence supporting their use in the pediatric population to help children cope with stress. Another favorite resource is Dr. Amy Saltzman’s CD, “Still Quiet Place.” Amy does a wonderful job creating a variety of mind-body experiences for children and families, and the recording is a terrific tool to engage youngsters in the practice of mindfulness.
One of my favorite ways to bring the concept of mindfulness into my kids’ lives has been through reading stories. Since they were very young, my children have loved listening to stories we tell them about “the old days.” Though they’re getting older now, we still try and make time to read stories together before bed. There is magic in telling and listening to stories.
Hans Christian Andersen, the bard of Copenhagen, was immortalized as a master storyteller, played by Danny Kaye, in my wife’s favorite movie of all time. I’d like to think we’ve all been mesmerized from time to time by storytellers. Stories are a way many of us pass on tales of our past, our culture, and moral lessons to our children. Native American storytelling, an integral part of American history, teaches children about the ways we interact with nature and about the importance of ancient wisdom. There are modern-day storytellers as well. Jim Weiss is one – I heard him a few years ago at a children’s health fair; he had the kids in the palm of his hand after two minutes. I also had the privilege of meeting Vered Hankin at an integrative pediatrics conference. If you think there’s no one around today weaving tales “like they used to” – you’ve got to listen to Vered’s work. Her stories come alive – they’re almost 3D. The power to me is the hypnotizing transportation to other places. This is truly mind-body therapy. And it is a very useful tool to help young children (and us old kids too!) cope with stress.
And what better way to help our children learn about mindfulness than through stories? Not just via the act of storytelling and listening but through the telling of specific stories that weave in messages about mindfulness. Jon Muth’s “Zen Shorts“ is one of my all-time favorites. On the surface, the author introduces three contemporary Western children to a decidedly-Buddhist giant panda, Stillwater, but along the way, he gracefully weaves in three Zen philosophy tales. My personal favorite (though not my kids, of course!) is about letting go. Karl, the youngest child, goes to visit Stillwater, but he’s quite mad at his older brother, Michael. Karl spends the day being mad at Michael, as Stillwater tries to educate him about enjoying the moment and releasing his anger. The parable Stillwater shares with Karl to illustrate the point goes something like this:
Two monks are walking along a country path. They soon are met by a caravan, a group of attendants carrying their wealthy and not-so-kindly mistress and her possessions. They come to a muddy river, and cannot cross with both mistress and packages – they must put one down and cannot figure out how to do so. So the elder monk volunteers to carry the woman across the river, on his back, allowing the attendants to carry her things, and then all can go on their way. The woman does not thank him, and rudely pushes him aside to get back to her caravan. After traveling some way on their own, the younger monk turns to his master, and says, “I cannot believe that old woman! You kindly carried her across the muddy river, on your very own back, and not only did she not offer thanks, but she actually was quite rude to you!” The master calmly and quietly turned to his student, and offered this observation: “I put the women down some time ago. Why are you still carrying her?”
The story resonated with me as I read it, and both kids asked many questions about the literal events and about their meaning. We spoke about different religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. They understood at a basic level the similarities and differences – though they interestingly both focused on the similarities. But it was the very nature of questioning that struck me as so apropos. I was reminded of a verse (15) from the Tao Te Ching:
- Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear?
- Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?
This concept of mindfulness, of being in the present, is so important to both children and adults. I think children mainly do live in the moment. Both the past and future are strange concepts until they age a bit. Perhaps we should learn to keep more of this “now” with us as we age. It would serve us all well.