Many parents worry about what and how much to tell their children when they are in pain. Some people think they are protecting their children by avoiding the subject. But children are very observant and usually sense when a parent is not feeling well. When you don’t tell them about your pain, they may feel like you are keeping a big secret. This can lead your children to lose trust in you when they figure it out by themselves. Children are strong and resilient. They will be relieved when they hear the facts from you.
Be sure of your facts
If you have trouble talking about your migraines with other adults, it will not be easier with a child. It may be smart to review some general information about migraine pain, like how common it is, and the different ways it can be treated, so that you don’t give your children bad information. Your goal is to make your children more comfortable talking with you about your migraine pain, so if they ask lots of questions that you can’t answer, don’t worry. You can always reassure them that these are good questions and that you will check with experts to be sure that you give them the right answer.
Children are not all alike
What and how you decide to tell your children about your migraine pain will depend on many factors. The first thing to consider is their age and their ability to understand. If they can understand the concept of “it hurts,” then you have a good starting point. Be honest but don’t overwhelm them with details. Find out what’s on their minds. Children often have fears that are worse than reality, so talking with them about this subject may be a big relief. Think about what you want to say, so that you will be prepared. Don’t be surprised by the questions they may ask!
When talking with young children, who may need reassurance about their own health, use explanations that are simple and familiar to them. They may want to know if they will “catch” your headache, or they may ask some very blunt and difficult questions, such as: “Are you going to die?” or, “Who will take care of me if you are always sick?” Older children, especially teens, may want to know how your situation will directly affect them. They may have practical concerns, like “Does having a migraine mean you can’t drive me to the mall?” or they may ask more complicated questions about heredity and migraines.
Be sure that your children know that they are not the cause of your pain. Many children blame themselves for all of the bad things that happen to the family. They may feel that your migraine is their fault, for example, if they are especially uncooperative or talk back one day, and then you disappear into the bedroom and shuts the door.
When talking with children of any age, find the right time when they can focus on what you have to say, and when you can fully answer their questions and hear their reactions. Don’t talk with them just before they have to leave for school or are settling down right before bedtime, or before an important social event. There is no need to cover everything the first time. You will have other chances to talk.
The first time you talk about your migraines with your child, he may not show any obvious interest. He may even turn away and keep playing while you talk, so you might think that it is going completely over his head. His questions may come later, thought – at any time, and out of the blue.
What if your children also have headache pain?
What parents communicate about their pain can influence their children’s future responses to pain and their future attitudes towards pain. Recently, researchers have been studying how much a child’s response to his own migraine pain is learned from his family and how much is hereditary; they have found a significant relationship between the pain reported by parents and migraine pain reported by their children.
How to start the conversation
Simple is best. Here are some good “starter” comments.
“You may have wondered why mom/dad takes so many different medicines”
“You may have wondered why mom/dad sometimes has to stay home and rest and can’t go to your soccer games”
“Some kids worry when they know their parents go to a doctor a lot, so let me tell you how my doctor is helping me”
“Sometimes when my head is hurting and I am feeling bad I yell at you when you didn’t do anything.”
Remember, your goal is to reassure them that you are going to be OK, you are getting good medical care, that you don’t blame them for their migraines, and that you want them to ask questions at any time.
Rizzo, V., & Kirkland, K. (n.d.) Tips on talking with children about a parent’s serious illness. National Association of Social Workers. Retrieved June 20, 2008 from http://www.helpstartshere.org/