Mind your child

  • Health
  • Sunday, 03 Oct 2010

A look at how your child’s health may be affected by issues weighing on his mind.

YOUR child keeps complaining of stomach ache, headache or tiredness, and you’re starting to think that it is one of his attention-seeking stunts as the doctor can’t seem to identify a cause.

But to your child the pain is real, and the pain may originate from an entirely non-physical underlying cause. It could be a result of his emotions.

The mind matters

Medicine is generally focused on the physical body as the source of disease. The relationship between the body and mind is often ignored, such that in clinical practice, ailments are usually treated as two independent entities:

  • The body refers to the physical structure and the various organs in our body. “Body” problems are diseases presumed to stem from a physical cause, e.g. abdominal pain, high blood pressure.
  • The mind relates to the psychological (e.g. emotion, memory, thought, perception, imagination) and intellectual aspects of our being. “Mind” problems refer to illnesses with a psychological cause, e.g. anxiety and depression.

Doctors and medical scientists today are coming to realise that it is wrong to make such a clear-cut separation, and that the mind and body interact closely with each other – so close that the mind has the power to affect a person’s health, and vice versa.

The mind affects the body

Notice how you get “butterflies in your stomach” when you’re nervous? Experts have found that the digestive system is strongly controlled by the “mind”. In other words, the functions of your digestive system, from stomach acid secretions to bowel movements, can be affected by feelings and emotions.

For instance, abdominal pain may increase when you are under pressure, or symptoms of peptic ulcer can worsen when you are stressed.

What your mind experiences is also frequently reflected as physical signs and symptoms. For example, your heart beats faster and you sweat profusely when you are afraid, because that state of mind signals your body to release the hormone adrenaline, which is responsible for those symptoms. Other body functions, such as heart rate, blood pressure and sleeping patterns, can also be affected by emotions, thus giving rise to an array of symptoms, such as palpitations, migraine and insomnia, even though no physical disease can be identified.

The body affects the mind

Constant physical discomfort or ailments, such as stomach ache or a chronic physical disorder, can also affect a person’s thinking or mood, causing him or her to become irritable, anxious or depressed. For instance, anxiety and depression often occur in individuals with Crohn’s disease (a chronic inflammatory bowel disease). These negative emotions not only worsen the existing physical disease, but further add on to the person’s misery and impair his or her quality of life.

Our mind-body interaction is a two-way street. With an understanding that all diseases have both physical and psychological elements involved, it has become clear that both the body and mind should be treated as one in many types of ailments.

A cry for help

According to a survey I conducted in the 1990s on about 3,000 elementary school children in Malaysia, about 10% of them suffered from recurrent abdominal pain.

In another study, after going through a series of physical examinations or investigations, over 95% of school children with recurrent abdominal pain did not have detectable abnormalities that could account for their symptoms.

Another condition that doctors frequently see in children these days is the syndrome of recurrent cyclical vomiting, i.e. recurrent bouts of vomiting with intervening periods of normal health. Many such cases are precipitated by the children’s inability to handle stressful situations and experiences, either in their social life or in their interaction with people around them.

It must be emphasised that these symptoms could also be manifestations of diseases that need urgent treatment, and so it is important for your child to be examined thoroughly by the doctor.

However, when your child continually complains of a physical discomfort with no apparent medical reason that your doctor could detect, it may be an indication that he has emotional problems that he is unable to cope with.

Sources of stress and worry

Even for a child, many things in life can cause stress or worry. Examples of stressful events are:

  • The loss of a family member
  • Recently moving to a new home, or changing to a new school
  • An unresolved family issue
  • Failing a school examination
  • Being teased or bullied at school

The inability to overcome stressful situations such as these can be important causes of physical complaints in children. Fortunately, once a problem is recognised, talked about, or handled appropriately, the symptoms may abate naturally or resolve completely.

A helping hand

As a parent, you can create favourable conditions in the family for your child to grow up happily with healthy minds and bodies. These are what you can do:

  • Give time and listen

Try your best to spend time with your child as often as possible, preferably every day. Your child may have a lot to share with you, whether it’s a happy event or sad incident. Find out what’s on his mind, and take interest in what he does in school and with friends.

Pay attention to what your child says, and ask for details if you need to. By sharing his worries and feelings through conversations, you can help reduce some of the weight on his mind.

  • Show that you care and understand

Help your child realise that you care by showing interest in his concerns, feelings, and problems. Be patient, affectionate and encouraging. Helping your child feel supported and understood will mean a lot to him, especially at times of stress.

  • Guide him to solutions

If your child shares his worries about a problem, avoid exacerbating the problem as this will put further pressure on him. Instead, provide assurance and comfort. Help him learn to deal with challenging situations in a constructive way, such as encouraging him to think of ideas to solve his problem.

Model positive behaviours

Be a good role model for your child by living a positive, balanced life yourself. Do not criticise your child, but encourage him to have confidence and live a balanced life.

Your child sometimes may not like to talk about what’s bothering him. That’s okay. Think of activities that both of you can do together, such as exercising in the park or watching a movie. This is a way to let him know that you are always around whenever he needs you.

The mind-body interaction is clearly something that cannot be ignored if you want your child to grow up healthily. However, you don’t need to be a mind-body interaction expert to help your child build a healthy body and mind. All your child needs from you is a little bit of your time and attention.

Prof Dr Christopher Boey Chiong Meng is a professor of paediatrics and consultant paediatric gastroenterologist. This article is not in any way intended as a substitute for medical attention. When in doubt, please consult your doctor. This article is courtesy of the Malaysian Paediatric Association’s Positive Parenting. For further information, please visit www.mypositiveparenting.org.

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