It’s Not All In Their Heads
Every once in a blue moon, my husband and I plan a “date night” to go out and see how long we can go without talking about our children. (Our record is 12 minutes). On such romantic occasions, we schedule a babysitter that we then debate canceling because, inevitably, one of our children gets a stomachache during the day. I usually end up reminding myself that the stomachache is likely borne from anxiety about being separated from one’s parents and left with a veritable stranger who will pinch-hit the precious nighttime routine (and mess it up, as substitutes can’t help but do). I usually don’t cancel-- I chalk it up to psychosomatic illness and proceed with the date -- but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe the stomachache. I just trust that my child is sturdy enough to endure and that as the anxiety abates (which usually happens when you get to stay up later and eat junk food, which substitutes can’t help but do), my child will feel better and maybe get a teeny, tiny bit more resilient.
When most people hear the term “psychosomatic illness,” they presume one is referring to a sickness that is not real or biologically-based, but rather imagined or invented, existing only in one’s mind. This is not accurate, and it is important to explore the term when thinking about children. Psychosomatic actually refers to a very real, experienced physical illness or ailment that is influenced or exacerbated by one’s mental state. The emotions we experience cannot be isolated and distinguished from our physical condition, and if we are anxious or sad or upset, this can cause physical symptoms or make existing ailments worse.
By now most of us have a basic understanding of the mind/body-connection. You don’t have to look far (perhaps not even beyond your own body) to find evidence of the toll stress takes on physical well-being. Stress activates our fight-or-flight system, which might have been adaptive when we were hunter-gatherers but not so much when we have desk jobs and grocery store runs. Stress prompts an influx of cortisol which, when released over-and-over to course through our bodies, compromises our immune systems and makes us vulnerable to illness. In times of stress for children, it is crucial to help them maintain healthy and adaptive coping strategies.
Children naturally somaticize, meaning they tend to express complex emotions through their bodies rather than putting words to their experience. When you add in the dangerous effects of stress, loss and grief take an exponential toll on little bodies. At times of stress for children, you might notice an increase in aches, pains, and nebulous boo boos. Appetites may markedly change. Sleep habits can shift. Stomachaches and headaches become more common. Children may act out aggression, anxiety, and sadness through their bodies. All of these symptoms are very real and should be treated as such; they are not simply ploys to garner attention.
How you can help grieving bodies:
- Be generous with soothing words and gestures. Adults can help children manage overwhelming physical suffering with plenty of reassurance that you will help them, and that the physical pain will abate with time.
- Treat the pain. Psychosomatic illness & pain is real. There are many ways to help: massage, hot and cold compresses, fresh air, and healthy foods can often be as effective as medications in helping children manage illness and alleviate pain.
- Explore ways for children to help themselves. Children can learn to use strategies to dampen the effects of stress on their bodies. Helping them to connect to and become grounded in their bodies through deep breathing, exercise, or even meditation serves them well as they grow.
- Stick to routines as much as possible. In times of stress, steady predictability can help return life to homeostasis. School attendance should remain a priority for children experiencing grief.
- Sleep brings balance. Nervous systems can be settled and immune systems boosted with the regenerative power of sleep. Don’t underestimate the effects of regular, uninterrupted sleep.
What soothing practices do you employ for your children when they are sick or in pain? Leave a comment below.
Dr. Emily McClatchey is a child psychologist and mother of three young children. She is the founder and creator of Kidolences,® specially-formulated care boxes to help kids manage loss and change. Send your love to a child at www.kidolences.com.