My tummy doesn’t want to go to school!

Has your child suddenly started having tummy aches right before going to school? Or better, feeling nauseous, causing you to cancel work for the day at the last minute? Maybe junior is even calling you from school because he’s in horrible pain? You’ve visited your family doctor or pediatrician, maybe even went through a few blood tests or other exams, and EVERYTHING is fine?

Seems like your child is suffering from the oh-so-common ‘My tummy doesn’t want to go to school’ phenomenon…which is more commonly referred to as Somatization. Soma-what?! What this means is that your child is expressing some underlying psychological distress, typically anxiety, through physical symptoms. What happens when we’re anxious is that our autonomic nervous system, which regulates our breathing, digestion and heartbeat, goes into overdrive into a fight or flight response. Our breath and heartbeat grows faster and faster, and our muscles get ready to get into action. Except, there’s no lion to fight, so that response which was adaptive for our ancestors is not so helpful. That tension will then lead to stomach aches, nausea, headaches, etc.

Here are a few tricks to deal with the daily tummy pain:

1)      Acknowledge your child is in pain. It’s not ‘in his head’. His or her anxiety is ACTUALLY creating physical symptoms…like when you have to give a presentation at work and your hands get sweaty, but worse.

2)      Practice ‘belly breathing’ twice a day for 5 minutes. If you’ve done any yoga, this is essentially how you’ve been taught to breathe. The goal is to have your child breathe in (from his/her nose) for about 3 seconds, then breathe out (from his/her mouth), for another 3 seconds. Only the belly should be moving (not the chest). Once your child has mastered this strategy in non-stressful situations (for example, when coming back from school and after story time), encourage him to use this strategy when the tummy ache manifests itself.  Here are some ways to make this more enticing:

  1. Ask your child to imagine a balloon of his favourite colour in his tummy. He is to then inflate and deflate that imaginary balloon.
  2. You can also take a small stuffed animal or toy and place it on your child’s stomach when he is lying down. The goal is to have the toy move up and down.
  3. Pretend to blow bubbles, or blow real bubbles! This will force your child to breathe out slowly from the mouth.

3)      DO NOT REINFORCE AVOIDANCE! Establish a rule that your child will have to go to school even with a tummy pain, unless he or she is having a fever or vomiting. Explain to his teacher and/or school secretary that you will not pick your child up from school unless he is having a fever or vomiting. Letting your child stay home or picking him up from school will only reinforce the idea that school is anxiety-provoking and dangerous…why else would your child feel so great when he gets home?

4)      Make sure to try to figure out what it is that is making your child nervous about going to school. Is He noticing he’s not on par with others? Is he getting bullied?

If you’ve tried this at home and are not seeing any improvements, consult with a qualified professional. Cognitive-behavioural therapy is a great way to help!

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