When I tell parents that I specialize in pediatric acupuncture, it’s like I’ve pressed the “Eject” button on an old VCR.  The look on their faces says, “No way!  There’s no way my child would ever try that.” Even parents who know and love me say things like, “Oh, I’m sure there are children who can handle acupuncture but my child is afraid of needles.  They would never do it.”

Let me assure you of one thing: Kids actually love acupuncture. 

Yes, parents know their children better than I do.  They’ve witnessed their kids crying at the doctor’s office after a shot.  They have begged and pleaded with their child to go to their annual appointment stating things like “There’s only one shot this time!  Only one.  I’ll get you ice cream when you’re done.”

Parents underestimate three things: the sweeping curiosity of children; the powerful impact of building patient-practitioner rapport; and (for those who have not tried acupuncture) how different my tiny pediatric needles feel compared to an injection at the doctor’s office.

I have seen kids make unexpected, adventurous choices when they are in a safe, trusting environment, thoroughly enjoying their treatment.  What I do in the treatment room is essentially the most gentle, relaxed, playful, and rather magical therapy that many children have ever seen.

A Gentle Introduction to Acupuncture

I never do anything that a child does not agree to.  They have to be the one that says, “Yes, I want to try that.”  So, if they’re really scared by the thought of needles, or as I call them “taps,” then we don’t use them at all.  No pressure, no pleading – I trust that children will try taps if /when they’re ready, because I’ve seen them do it.

When I work with children, I demonstrate for them how the taps work, using the acupuncture table, my own arm or a willing parent as my “tap model.”  I answer their questions and let them look at the taps.  They can see how tiny they are.  I explain why I call them “taps” – they feel like a gentle tap on the skin when I use them.

Parents who are convinced that their child will not try acupuncture “taps” often find that by the second visit, the child’s curiosity has gotten the best of them and they want to try it.  Curiosity is a powerful motivator.

A Safe and Inquisitive Environment for Learning

I encourage kids to ask questions – they ask the most thorough and curious questions!  We discuss the difference between a “tap” and a needle at the doctor’s office.  When kids, typically over 4 years old, want to discuss taps, I break down the myth that all needles are painful.  I demonstrate why and how some needles are easy and trouble-free.

I create a safe and comfortable environment for kids. I emphasize that not being ready to try new things is totally okay and I never push.  This helps them relax and enjoy the treatment.

Don’t worry about explaining acupuncture to your kids.  I discuss it with them in a way that builds patient-practitioner trust and helps them feel safe and comfortable.  If you would like to tell your children something about what to expect when you’re headed to your first pediatric acupuncture appointment, read my article on “Preparing for Your First Pediatric Session.”

A Quick and Painless Insertion and Extraction

Do you know how I know beyond an inkling of a doubt that “all needles are painful” is a myth?  Three-year old children.

Three-year olds think “tap taps” are just the most hilarious, interesting, and weird thing they’ve ever witnessed.  They really love them. The thrill that these kids display while trying taps is a testament to the fact that they don’t hurt.  They are so tiny that they usually cannot be felt on insertion.  Kids learn to distrust a sharp, pointy metal objects later in life. They do not have to fear acupuncture taps.  And typically, they don’t panic about them unless they have learned that fear from another experience or person.

Now, don’t worry.  With 3 year olds, and other youngsters, I put in the tap and take it right back out.  Like most of the parents I meet, I’m not betting my life on young children sitting still for two seconds!

Parents express concern that the treatment will be less potent when they involve a quick in/out movement instead of longstanding needle retention.  The beautiful thing about treating children is that they don’t need to be quiet and still to benefit from treatments.  As we say in East Asian medicine, their yang is already on the exterior of their body. This means that tapping into the systems that respond to acupuncture in a child is an instant process.  Kids’ nervous systems and immune systems are incredibly responsive and reactive.  Their bodies are poised and ready to respond to even the gentlest nudge.

When children give acupuncture a try they realize that it is surprisingly painless and they are willing to have a few taps at each treatment. But what about kids who really do not want to try taps?  Probably somewhere around 40% of the kids who visit my practice do not want to try acupuncture right away.  For these children, we simply move on to Shonishin, a painless, non-needle, non-invasive acupressure system, as well as other non-needle methods including cupping, herbal medicine, ear jewels or ear seeds and other techniques.

Coming Up Next: You can learn more about Shonishin and other non-needle options in my next article, The 5 E’s: What to Expect in Non-Needle Pediatric Treatments at Light & Dark Acupuncture.

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