Ten Complementary Therapies That Can Help Children

Mother tucking child into bedI am frequently asked what the best complementary or alternative therapies for kids are. This is a broad and potentially complex question, with appropriate courses of treatment depending on both on the child’s struggles and the balance of safety and efficacy of the therapy being considered. Eventually, many parents eventually find a complementary or alternative medicine (CAM) therapy that feels right for their child.

The most recent data from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) found that 12% of the 9,000 children surveyed in 2007 had used some form of CAM during the previous year. CAM use typically ranges from providing remedies in lieu of medical treatments—such as using a homeopathic flu remedy instead of a prescription—to using CAM in conjunction with conventional remedies. The latter can be as simple as giving a child a zinc lozenge or tea with honey in addition to the antibiotics a doctor prescribes when a child has a sore throat or throat infection. Another example is when a child has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and his or her parents employ dietary changes even if the child is also receiving medication or psychotherapy. CAM therapies are often used to help children manage symptoms of chronic pain conditions or notable anxiety, ideally in combination with psychotherapy (and appropriate medical care, if this is indicated).

Remembering Developmental Differences

A point NCCAM emphasizes is that children are not merely smaller versions of adults. Similarly, more studies have been conducted regarding the effects of many CAM therapies on adults, although there is a growing body of research on CAM with children. Thus, what may be considered an appropriate CAM therapy or dose of therapy for an adult is not necessarily what we can recommend for a child.

That being said, there are a number of treatments that are considered generally safe for children, particularly when provided or informed by appropriately trained professionals. My favorites are listed here. I chose to emphasize non-oral intake therapies, although at times these may also be appropriate.

  1. Guided imagery or self-hypnosis can be helpful for managing mood symptoms, pain and itching, sleep difficulties, and nausea.
  2. Mindfulness or other types of meditation can aid in improving mood, pain, itching, sleep, nausea, and concentration.
  3. Aromatherapy can help reduce anxiety and enhance feelings of calm, especially when paired with other therapies, including cognitive behavioral therapy, meditation, imagery/hypnosis, or massage.
  4. Movement therapies, such as yoga, dance therapy, or tai chi can increase a child’s feelings of mastery, discharge excess physical tension, provide focus, and improve mood.
  5. Massage  decreases muscle tension or soreness and increases relaxation.
  6. Energy therapies, such as Reiki or therapeutic touch, may help increase calmness and decrease stress. These may also help with some physical discomforts.
  7. Art therapy can help children cope with change, shed light on emotions and concerns that they may have trouble verbalizing, and reinforce healing images created during guided imagery and hypnosis.
  8. Homeopathy is gently calming and is reported to help with fears, anxiety, and tantrums. There is less data on this therapy, but it is generally considered to be safe.
  9. Diluted ginger tea can help with upset stomach/nausea.
  10. Dietary changes, which may include eliminating processed foods, caffeine, or sugar and emphasizing whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and healthy sources of protein, are health-supportive overall, and some parents report improved mood, sleep, and concentration when processed foods are limited or eliminated.

One common theme that runs through most of the therapies listed above is that they help children to feel calmer. Some of the approaches provide children with tools to help them directly impact how they feel via what they do (movement therapies, imagery/hypnosis, meditation, art), which enhances children’s feelings of mastery and control. All of these approaches require at least initial participation and monitoring from parents—a key ingredient in helping children to feel safe, loved, and supported.

As always, it is essential to keep healthcare providers in the loop when using CAM therapies with children, particularly with those who have a medical or psychological illness.

Modeling Emotional Intelligence

Finally, if I were to add a number 11 to the list, it would be to emphasize that children pick up on and are undoubtedly affected by their parents’ moods. It is essential for parents dealing with anxiety, depression, or other psychological challenges to obtain appropriate treatment. Doing so helps parents feel better, enhances their ability to cope with the many demands of parenting, and teaches children about the value of self-care. Furthermore, emotionally healthy parents tend to parent more effectively, which also reduces children’s feelings of anxiety and depression.


  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: CAM Use and Children
  • Columbia University’s Integrative Therapies Program for Children with Cancer: A leading program that emphasizes both research and clinical practice. Their website contains a wealth of information about a variety of therapies, as well as helpful links.
  • This article details an integrative (CAM) treatment of pediatric pain and itch (pruritus) with a seven year-old girl:
    • Stein, T. R., Sonty, N., and Saroyan, J. M. (2012). “Scratching” beneath the surface: An integrative psychosocial approach to pediatric pruritus and pain. Child Clinical Psychology and Psychiatry, 17(1), 33-47.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Robyn

    May 28th, 2012 at 12:27 PM

    I have found that as a mom, and not just in a classroom setting that movement is the key to maintaining sanity for me and the kids too.

    Think about how you felt as a child all cooped up inside with no chance for experiencing something through moving. And then think how good it feels just to get up and release some of that energy!

    That is how I feel on rainy days and I know the kids feel that way too. Nothing better during those times than just to get up and have a dance, or do a few jumping jacks, anything to get that energy flowing again.

    And once we do that, then the day doesn’t seem quite so bad.

  • Zenia

    May 28th, 2012 at 3:49 PM

    I have read a lot of different places that making even small dietary changes can make a big difference in the behavior of many children.
    What did they used to talk about being so bad for them, some kind of red dye or something like that?
    I know that sugar hypes people up, but have there been any other changes that some of you out there have trued and have noticed a positive difference as a result of the changes?
    I have even heard that switching to a gluten free or even a vegan diet can make big differences in bad behavioral issues. Thoughts?

  • MelG

    May 29th, 2012 at 4:04 AM

    All of these ideas, when combined with appropriate mixture of therapy and other behavioral modifications, could work wonders for any child who is experiencing some difficulties in both school and at home. Sometimes it doesn’t take much, just some small little tweaks to make the most impression, as well as the most benefiacial changes.

  • Traci Stein

    May 29th, 2012 at 4:47 AM

    @Zenia: I think this is one of those situations where unfortunately there is no one dietary change that will benefit everyone presenting with a certain condition. Although the evidence to date is somewhat mixed, there are recommendations that are worth considering if a child has behavior problems or difficulty focusing on tasks. Among these are reducing refined carbohydrates, which can lead to rapid increases and sudden drops in blood sugar (and can make both adults and children feel pretty awful afterwards), and avoiding processed foods in general, particularly those that contain MSG, artificial colors (especially red and yellow), or sodium benzoate (a preservative). Increasing consumption of omega-3 fatty acids (see my previous blog post for more information) is particularly good for overall brain health and improving mood. If your child’s behavior or attentional problems persist even after making the above changes, I recommend consulting with a registered dietitian (RD) and/or an allergist to see if there are other dietary changes worth making. For more information on food and ADHD, please visit this informative link: webmd.com/add-adhd/guide/adhd-diets

  • Zenia

    May 29th, 2012 at 4:06 PM

    Thanks for the link Traci. I will definitely have a look.

  • Susan Bruhn

    June 8th, 2012 at 3:49 AM

    How I wish my mother knows this complementary therapies when I was still a kid. She never did something like this. But I know my mother loves me so much that she would do everything she can for me.

  • David

    July 8th, 2015 at 10:25 AM

    Hi , I’m separated from my partner and have been for the past 6 years we have a 9 year old son and over the last few months his behaviour has changed for the worst he was and still is most of the an angel ,but of late he can get quite aggressive and started throwing things at his mum and actually kicked his grandad in the leg. A few weeks ago , when I phone to talk to him he will say don’t want to talk to you I don’t like you and never have , go away , I live 3 hours away from him and with my work commitments can’t be there every week , so I usually get to see him every 3/4 weeks this is how it’s always been since we separated , I wondered if he has addh or one of those , his behaviour at school is perfect although sometimes he will decide he doesn’t want to go and like on Monday this week I was there and had to literally drag him into school he was fighting all the way , is it possible to get alternative therepies for this behaviour we do have an appointment with the school nurse in 2 weeks time and was told that she would refer us to cams ?? I would appreciate any feedback Thanks

  • Traci Stein

    July 9th, 2015 at 7:17 AM

    Hi David, thanks for your question. It sounds like you are all going through a lot. My thought as a clinician is that the first thing to do is have your son evaluated by a competent mental health professional. This will give you, your partner, and your son a better idea of what is going on for him. This is an essential first step to developing any type of treatment plan – CAM, conventional, or ideally, integrative. CAM therapies can indeed help with relaxation and feeling a sense of mastery over one’s well being, but they should not replace proper evaluation and treatment that is tailored to the specific issues affecting someone. A good mental health professional can help your son to better understand what is triggering the emotions and thoughts that are fueling these behavior changes, and help you and your ex to take steps that are most likely to be helpful. I wish you the best.

  • ramu

    February 27th, 2019 at 5:14 AM

    I would like to appreciate for sharing such kind of information with us.Child upbringing itself is not an easy task and is stressful in itself, especially now-a- days with more and more families opting for nuclear setup and if you have a child having behavioural or personality disorder then it may appear to be all the more stressful. Dealing with children having disorders like autism, ADHD, etc. needs lots of patience and perseverance from parents. Many a time parents may lose hope and bring out their frustrations and anger at these children. As parents it is important that you are emotionally strong, take care of yourself and take help of relatives or friends when needed. Given below are general tips to parents:

    Be consistent in your approach and stick to a routine- if they learn a new skill make sure they keep practicing repeatedly in the same manner
    Involve them in day to day activity
    Schedule a play time and ensure it is a fun filled activity in which the child can be involved
    Reward good behaviour
    Build on your child’s strength
    Breakdown a task into simple steps.
    Understand the trigger factor for your child’s behaviour at a particular time
    Take adequate rest while taking care of your child without feeling guilty.
    Ensure you have sufficient sleep. Remember sleep deprivation makes us irritable and grumpy.
    Ventilate out your feelings or frustrations either through blog, or talking to support group etc., but not on the child.
    Take help of a support system

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