How to talk to a kid about maybe not-so mysterious headaches?
November 26, 2016 10:55 PM   Subscribe

10 year old has always been a bit of a grumbler when it comes to activities he dislikes. Lately, however, he gets headaches on days when he has to play sports. Maybe it’s some kind of psychosomatic thing. Thoughts on how to talk to him about this? I would love to hear from anyone who has successfully dealt with this.
posted by Prof Iterole to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Even if the pain is psychogenic, it's still real. Don't discount that. You need to honor his feelings and help him see the connection between physical symptoms and emotional distress. Perhaps he lacks the tools and vocabulary to identify his feels and deal with them verbally. Have you asked him why he doesn't want to play? He may have a good reason you don't know about.

You speak of this in a slightly dismissive way — "grumbler" "some kind of thing" "successfully dealt with this." Like he's a problem to solve. Does he generally confide in you? Is he shy or anxious, easily discouraged? Does he get teased? Is he resilient? Does he struggle with coordination or strength, getting along with teammates, self-soothing or motivation? Is he younger, less developed than the other kids? Of course it could be any number of things. Maybe he just needs more choice in the matter. He'd love swimming or ballet or art, but not soccer. Perhaps on some clever level he realizes he can get out of it this way (the question remains, why does he want to.) But it may be entirely unconscious, simply reinforced by the feedback loop of escaping what is undesirable.

I'd encourage him to share his thoughts and feelings. Let him know that it's okay to dislike an activity, but sometimes it's worth doing anyway. If he can identify what he doesn't like, perhaps you can change it together. Does he have ideas about that? Talk about the positive side of sports and teamwork— what parts *does* he like? Is there a way to restructure the game to be less pressured, more rewarding? Can you trade it for a more suitable activity?

Next time he gets a headache, ask him to think about what preceded it. Encourage him to sit with the bad feelings and watch them grow smaller. Breathing exercises and positive mantras can help him stay calm and focused. "Sometimes we have headaches when we're sick, but sometimes we get them when we're stressed or uncomfortable. It's a helpful warning sign — it says, 'Wake up! Pay attention! Something here is hard or scary, and you need to figure out what it is.' Once you know, you can change your approach so you feel better."

TLDR; Ask him what's wrong, solve that first. Distress tolerance skills (DBT / CBT).
posted by fritillary at 12:14 AM on November 27, 2016 [30 favorites]

Maybe it's a psychogenic but real headache but your post isn't clear about that. When I was a kid I DID straight-up fake being sick to get out of school and sports. It became an almost daily issue when I had an awful, bullying teacher in 4th grade. What helped was my mom talking to me about school in general to find out why I was "sick" more often that year than others. She also set a rule that I was allowed to skip school or an activity for any reason, no excuse needed, 3 times a year. She was a stay-at-home mom, so I know this isn't possible for everyone, but it was pretty genius because it cut down on my whining and BSing by giving me a huge sense of control over when I showed up for an activity. Then, I hoarded my chances to skip school and ended up only using it once, as I recall.

So that's something that worked for my family. I would definitely discourage anything that frames this as lying or dishonesty, but it seems like you're aware of that.

Being a kid is hard because you have so little control of your time, but if there's any way to give your son some of that control back, it could help.
posted by horizons at 1:52 AM on November 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

Please be careful about how you thing and how you speak about this. I suffered headaches that were absolutely grounded in how dreadful I was feeling and how difficult my life was during a period of my teens when I had no way to express what was going on and no one who wanted to know. This was openly discussed around me as being "psychosomatic" and "all in her head", but in such a way that what was implied (or at least inferred by me) was that I was some sort of snowflake, drama queen, malingerer. This has had long reaching implications for me in terms of self care, self advocacy and heeding the signals my body sends me.

Re your actual post, if he's shit at team sports let him do something individual for the sport part and something he's better at for the team part, scouts or something. There's nothing worse than being forced to do thing you suck at, everyone knows you suck at it, and since they rely on you they hate you for sucking. #madetomimeinchoir
posted by Iteki at 2:19 AM on November 27, 2016 [21 favorites]

Can you clarify -- is this mandatory school gym class, or extracurricular?

If it's the latter, just take him out. God, I hated 80% of sports so much I deliberately sprained my ankle on a couple of occasions to get out of miseries like day-long track and field horrors.

If it is mandatory school stuff, horizons' 'three get-out-of-it no-questions-asked passes/year' is a lovely idea. (And yes, it is hard being a kid. These sorts of fusses are always easiest to deal with if you can dig way back in your memory bank and remember all the times it totally sucked to be 10. I know it looks like all Lego and no bills from here, but it isn't really like that when you're the kid.)

Also, what does he want to do? We did a few years of soccer, because...I don't know, because everybody else did. It was tedious. We both agreed to skip it a number of times. We tried tennis. That was a hit, but -- it was just blazing hot some days. Now we're in judo, and the kid is in her uniform two hours before it's time to leave, and comes home thrilled to death about it. I think back to the soccer days and feel a bit stupid, and wish we'd briefly sampled more things before enrolling in stuff...
posted by kmennie at 3:35 AM on November 27, 2016 [13 favorites]

One of my kids has very occasional migraines from stress and exercise. Bright light doesn't help either. This culminated in migraines after field exercises for junior army camp, and a full panic attack when his sergeant didn't take him seriously about the pain. Exercise helps my migraines, but with this kid, we have to do indoor or water sports and avoid high pressure competition. The kicker is that he's athletically gifted and enjoyed his sports activities.

Kids do get migraines. Keep track if symptoms and possible triggers, including stress. Does your kid enjoy other athletic fun activities like family hikes or splashing about in a pool? Maybe the sport is scheduled right after meals, or in a hall with flickering lights, or they're getting bullied in the class. If the headaches last longer than the class and mess up their day, consider going to a doctor.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 4:29 AM on November 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, what does he want to do?

My kids never gelled with team sports. Those depend on so much on the relative ranking within the team. And, younger kids don't really seem to get a chance unless the have an obsessed father [who've tossed baseball since age 0].

Skiing and snowboarding became the thing for our kids – they are part of a team, but there is no real competition/ pecking order amongst the kids.

They all train in one big group, but the 16-year old kid is not competing against my 11-year old, etc. When someone learns a new trick everyone is genuinely happy for that kid and cheers.

They talk shop using the ridiculous language of freestyle skiers/ snowboarders, which is incomprehensible to most everyone. However, they've found a sport that they like. I've seen similar thing with our friends' daughter that rally got into swimming.

Don't make them do something that they don't want to. If it is mandatory at school, then let them know that it is OK to half-ass it. I think that the American obsession about team sports is odd...
posted by zeikka at 4:44 AM on November 27, 2016 [8 favorites]

Stress can trigger both headaches and migraines.

One trigger is stress = blood pressure spikes = nasty headache. Headaches are no less real, and no less painful, for being caused by blood pressure spikes from stress.

Bright sunlight, being out in the sun with no shade, and dehydration or sweating + lack of salt could also all be headache triggers.
posted by Sockpuppets 'R' Us at 5:07 AM on November 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Maybe the headaches are a proxy for a different physiological symptom that your son doesn't think will be taken seriously? When I was a kid I had what I think was slight exercise-induced asthma (or maybe the air quality was just that bad) and so I hated hyper-aerobic exercise. I also hated basketball because I tended to jam my fingers on the ball and I hated volleyball because I have skinny little wrists and hitting the ball just hurt so much. When you're a kid it's hard to separate out these things as being abnormal -- you just assume that everyone experiences the world the same way you do except they somehow enjoy it.
posted by heatherlogan at 6:26 AM on November 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

Okay, this is just a cautionary tale but my son hated writing so much he would tie himself up in knots complaining about it and his stomach pain. This was over about a month, timed exactly to when the demands at school went up, and only on weekdays.

He had emergency surgery after his appendix burst. Although chronic appendicitis is rare, he never has complained about stomach pain since (unless actually sick) and there was some speculation that he had had that.

So I would definitely get the headaches checked out. Other possibilities could include that for some reason he gets more dehydrated on those days, or is in a space with particular lights.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:56 PM on November 27, 2016

The phrase "when he has to play sports" is a standout for me. Why does he HAVE to? I hated sports as a kid, and dreaded any kind of force participation in those activities. I just wanted to be left the hell alone.

I was a willful little guy, so I mostly got my way, but the sheer misery of the times I didn't is enough to still make me angry. Maybe reconsider coercing him into activities that cause him so much stress he's getting headaches.
posted by uberchet at 7:24 AM on November 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

I got psychosomatic headaches and stomachaches in third grade when I was learning long division. It was hard, my teacher was weird, my mom had just had a baby, my dad was traveling a lot, and I had never found any academic subject difficult before. My mom was really, really clear that she thought I was making it up. I felt like I really *did* have headaches and stomachaches. Fritillary has it -- sit down with your kid, figure out what is really going on, and collaborate with him to solve the problem. In my case, more focused parental attention and some tutoring probably would have fixed it. Instead, I was made to feel that my concerns were unimportant and that I couldn't ask for help if things were difficult.
posted by linettasky at 12:42 PM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ask him what's wrong, solve that first.

So much this.

My younger brother would get nauseous and throw up on days when he had a big test at school. They eventually got him tested, discovered his learning disability, and worked with the school to get him the help he needed to learn. Good-bye stomach upset.
posted by carrioncomfort at 12:51 PM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

This was me ages 10 - 17 or so. I would get headaches frequently and my parents would tell me it was stress. At some point I said, "Self, your parents are telling you this is stress. I know that sounds like bullshit but damn this headache hurts." So I locked myself in my room, shut the lights, lay down on my bed and tried to think about what I was stressed about. And just the process of identifying what was winding me up (for me, it was often due to procrastination) was enough to turn a headache from a 7 to a 2 or 3 in about 20 minutes.

I think the key for you is to get the kiddo's buy-in. I'm sure my parents were trying to help but I wished they had been a bit more direct in offering solutions. Just dropping "it's stress" without any tools/suggestions in a kid's lap was kind of maddening for me. And also, it might be something else entirely, and probably a good idea to communicate that as well.
posted by funkiwan at 1:58 PM on November 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thank you to everyone who commented and shared their experiences. You've opened my eyes, and kiddo is now longer doing the sport. Thanks so much.
posted by Prof Iterole at 1:35 AM on December 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

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