What Your Child’s Sore Tummy May be Telling You
If your child complains of a sore tummy, it might be due to anxiety disorder, a mental problem that can have life-long effects. The good news is that anxiety is treatable. The Southern Cross looks at distress signs in children and what to look out for.
For some parents, a child’s complaint, “My tummy is sore”, is a pointer that the kid is faking illness in order to dodge school or has been eating too many sweets again.
But the child’s complaint of stomach pain may signal something more serious: anxiety.
Adults know the feeling of anxiety: that knot in the pit of the stomach we have when we are anxious about something. We even have a name for it: nervous stomach.
As adults, we usually are able to identify the symptom; we can name the problem. Fear. Nerves. Stress. Anxiety.
Smaller children don’t have the experience or terminology to identify and verbalise the source of their sore tummy. All they know is that their tummy is sore, and they tell us so in the hope that we can do something to ease the problem.
Their anxiety may have a logical explanation. They may be unusually nervous about a test, or fear the consequences for not having completed homework, or stress about sports that day.
They might be anxious about an overly strict teacher or a bully in the school ground.
Or they may have an anxiety disorder, a condition the psychologist Dr Jerry Bubrick calls “the bully in the brain”, which may be triggered by tasks, people or situations such as tests, bullies or sports day.
The world has only just begun to identify anxiety as a mental disorder, sometimes debilitating, among adults. Sometimes it is still mistaken for ordinary fear.
Anxiety can devastate
But statistics show that up to 30% of all kids develop an anxiety disorder. This comes on top of other childhood mental disorders and behavioural issues which, until quite recently, were unidentified and therefore untreated, such as ADHD.
At its worst, anxiety disorder can devastate the person dealing with it, adult or child. It can affect relationships and career or education.
If it is left untreated, anxiety disorder can lead to depression, low self-esteem, academic dysfunction, difficulty in forming and maintaining relationships, sleep disturbance and possibly even substance abuse.
But this doesn’t mean that the person with anxiety disorder can’t function. They are able to go through the day, but sometimes with greater difficulty than others. This may not be immediately apparent. It might be a signal, for example, if a child takes twice as long as it should to complete homework.
People with anxiety disorder might not experience anxiety all the time but only when triggered (sometimes by things they cannot explain themselves).
A once carefree child might become an anxious teenager. This is because anxiety disorder is cognitive — it develops along with one’s cognitive abilities. It’s usually not just a “passing phase”.
Adults who are being treated for anxiety disorder now may recall felling anxious when they were children or teenagers. Had that condition been known and treated when they were kids, their life might have been improved immeasurably.
Your child may have an anxiety disorder if it shows signs such as these:
- Frequent stomach- or headaches, especially in the face of stressful situations
- Agitation, inattention and/or restlessness
- Avoiding people or situations
- Tantrums over trivial issues
- Adaptation problems
- Extreme perfectionism and/or obsessive-compulsive behaviour
These may be warning signs that the child may require treatment for anxiety.
How can parents respond?
“Essentially, anxiety in children tends to manifest as negative behaviours that you may have glimpsed briefly in the past, but that are becoming consistent and intense,” according to psychologist Dr Liz Matheis.
“If any of these symptoms or behaviours persist, consult with a psychologist who uses a cognitive behavioural approach in treating anxiety,” Dr Matheis advises.
The good news is that anxiety disorder is very treatable, mostly through therapy and sometimes involving medication. The earlier the disorder is caught, the better the prospects for successful treatment.
But, psychologists warn, if a parent identifies anxiety disorder in their child, the trick is to not dramatise the condition or to eliminate the situations that cause the child stress.
Apart from seeking therapeutic help, the parental strategy must be to help the child cope by “helping them learn to tolerate their anxiety and function as well as they can, even when they’re anxious”, according to psychologist Dr Clark Goldstein. “And as a byproduct of that, the anxiety will decrease or fall away over time.”
Dr Goldstein advises parents of anxious children to “listen and be empathetic, help her understand what she’s anxious about, and encourage her to feel that she can face her fears”.
Don’t ask leading questions (“Are you scared of the test?”, rather ask: “How are you feeling about the test?”), don’t make unfounded promises (“Don’t worry, you’ll pass the test”), and don’t reinforce the fear (“That test really is something to be scared of”).
And when the child complains of a sore stomach…listen!