"A Tummy Ache in My Head"
It's a question I hear often: What to do when a child complains of a tummy ache?
Like so many vital child-rearing questions, this one cannot be answered out of context. We need to know how old the child is, whether she's generally healthy. Are tummy aches typical complaints and under what circumstances? Has she just been sick with a GI virus? Is it going around in the family, school, or neighborhood?
Has this child frequently complained of tummy aches when he is upset or worried, particularly about some form of imminent separation, such as starting a new school, camp, going for a sleep-over, anticipating a parent's business travel, etc.? Anxiety is just as likely to cause distress as is a virus or food poisoning. But in either case in the situations mentioned so far, the complaints have all been legitimate: there was a real "tummy ache," even it originated in the autonomic nervous system.
Of course, there is the possibility that such a complaint might be fictional. A wish to avoid doing something not high on the list of a child’s preferred activities; a cry for attention from loving, but busy parents, etc. can be among the reasons. And frequently, the child is not lying, having begun to believe his own report. He can work up pain as needed without a lot of conscious scheming.
Here’s an example of a classical, convincing, but fictional physical complaint. My brother used to have what I, his cynical older sister, labeled “Sunday School Sore Throats.” Our parents were definitely health focused (I was going to say, “Health Nuts!” but thought better of it) so they were easy marks and the kid knew it. Almost every Sunday morning, he would announce a sore throat, and be excused to play quietly in his room. He would watch the bus pass by his window, and in no time flat, his infirmity would be history and he full of spirit. I was astonished that our parents never figured out the con. In retrospect, they probably knew the odds, but didn’t think it was important to “take a chance” on his health.
On the other hand, years later when my 3 year old daughter complained of a “tummy ache in my head,” I had no doubt that her story was legitimate. In addition to being adorable, it was too creative for even our “Princess Aurora” to have concocted. It turned out that she had a fever, forecasting a nasty flu. In her linguistic logic, “pain” was synonomous with “tummy ache.” I had to be alert enough to know that. So this parenting thing is tricky. You have to be thinking about all the possible angles, even the ones you never heard of, when you hear the “tummy ache” complaint (or its equivalent).
I guess this all brings me back to one of my repetitive themes: Know your kids, listen to them, observe them, and don’t jump to conclusions about what may be behind any particular behavior -- whether typical or unusual. Mull over several hypotheses about what’s really going on and why; but when it comes to health issues, be a little bit of a nut like my parents -- put a call into the pediatrician or family doctor for a reportedly persistent tummy ache. Don’t worry about being duped by someone that small. In rare circumstances, the stakes can be high. And what’s so bad about having kids who are cleverer than we are? Isn’t that our contemporary American dream — empower the children; it’s okay to leave their parents behind?
January 29, 2008