At a recent Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics conference, I learned some interesting facts concerning girls and headaches. A 2001 study by Lipton, Maytal, and Winner found that 57-82% of all kids aged 7-15 experience headaches, an increase over the past decades. 20-30% of teen girls also get migraines, ten times more often than boys at that age. These migraines are not usually related to girl’s menstrual cycles, and 55-69% of kids respond positively to a placebo. So what are we to make of these findings?
They make me think we are missing the forest for the trees. I counsel so many girls who experience headaches and stomachaches as symptoms of a much deeper problem: built up emotions that they are not taking the time to express. Along with these somatic complaints comes having a hard time falling asleep, snapping angrily at people who don’t deserve it (often siblings or parents), anxiety or depression, an inability to focus at school because they are so internally distracted, or just feeling blah and unmotivated. Girls today don’t know how to slow down and go inward to know what they are feeling: they are too swamped with their ultra-busy lives and technology distractions. And we haven’t taught them how to express all their emotions in healthy ways either.
Some girls handle these overwhelming emotions by cutting, drinking, getting high, having sex, over-controlling their eating, becoming super busy and overachieving in school or athletics, or shutting down and isolating themselves. When I ask them how they are feeling because of difficult life circumstances that have caused the emotions, the typical answer I hear is: “I don’t know.” I tell them I believe that they can’t off the top of their heads identify what they are feeling, but that if they slow down and get quieter and go inward, they do know.
So before kids with stomach and headaches get sent out for thousands of dollars worth of testing, sit down with them for a while and listen. Help them discover what is going on inside of them, and teach them effective ways to express all of their emotions. Girls I work with who regularly spend time voicing these feelings through journaling, artwork, poetry, writing stories or songs, playing an instrument, singing, or dancing feel lighter, more calm, more together, and more in control. They no longer feel overwhelmed, and they feel more like themselves. And, their headaches disappear.
Girls need help in becoming more aware of their internal worlds and in acquiring the skills to deal with the pressures of school, relationship aggressions, and the normal ups and downs of life. The adolescent years are a time of transformation and change, and we know that girls will ride an emotional roller coaster as they gather the strength and wisdom needed to face the challenges of becoming an adult woman. Be proactive and teach girls about their emotions.