Children of any age can develop symptoms of irritable bowl syndrome (IBS). This can be distressing for the child and also frustrating and distressing for parents. As a parent, you desperately want to help and hate seeing your child in any pain or discomfort.
IBS symptoms can range from cramps or pains in the tummy, to flatulence (farting), constipating, diarrhoea. At my London office, I also see children who suffer with regurgitating food or unwanted vomiting. As a parent of a child experiencing these symptoms, this article may provide some advice and help.
Treating IBS Symptoms
One of the most common IBS symptoms I see children experience is IBS with pain. This pain can come on after eating, can sometimes be related to stress or appear almost without warning. Pain is particularly hard for us to see others experience. It’s a natural reaction to want to comfort and bring relief.
When you see a child in the throes of IBS pain, of course, all you want to do is take care of them and do what you can to reduce that pain.
Let me tell you about a Fran, aged 14. She had strong discomfort from IBS. She also had constipation. Fran found it an effort to go to school. She simply wanted to stay in bed and also she no longer took part in sports and also missed out on seeing friends. The pain was so much to take.
However, she shared, “My mother would encourage me and made me get up and go out, which was the last thing I wanted to do at that time! She’d get me to go for walks with her around the supermarket, even though I kicked up a fuss and complained the whole time.”
Fran is now a few years older and applying for university. She also has a part-time weekend job. She sees friends and enjoys again sports. She credits her mother’s determination for her returning to studying and school. What is important to note is that her mother never doubted her daughter’s experience. That when she said she was in pain that was indeed true. Her mum knew that Fran had IBS pain, but rather than allow that pain to dictate Fran desisting from activities, her mum gently encouraged her to do as much as she could. Fran would have pain anyways.
The key is to do what feels counter intuitive.
Fran’s mum’s maternal instinct was to allow Fran to rest and take it easy. However with IBS pain, that can create more anxiety and increase a feeling of helplessness. The child learns to allow the pain to decide what happens. Sometimes children can start feeling so worried about pain that they are off school for months. This in turn leads to not seeing friends too.
How to help children with IBS pain symptoms
The key is to use Fran’s mum as a role model. Empower kids to do as much as they can. This, though, does need to be scheduled with good periodic rest periods. Fatigue and tiredness can be very debilitating for IBS sufferers. Don’t go ‘all or nothing’. If your child feels good, then don’t do too much. Ensure energy is evenly distributed over a number of days. When your child feels in pain, don’t be tempted to keep them totally away from activities. Encourage them to do things, even with the pain.
Empowering children can involve adaptations. This might mean doing similar activities but in a more manageable way. For example, for Fran, rather than a full on gym class, she would participate in physical therapy when she returned to school.
Fran was very lucky to have a mum who coached and encouraged her. It is often unclear what the right way to encourage children with IBS is. There is always a fear of causing damage or more discomfort. However, I have seen the best intentioned parents struggle with the stress and uncertainty involved in caring for children who have IBS pain type symptoms.
It’s okay to ‘not know’. Being the parent of a child with IBS is tough.
First of all, as a parent of a child with IBS, give yourself a break. I’m sure you’re doing really well. There isn’t always a guidebook to explain what to do. It’s not easy to accept that your child has a chronic or distressing health problem of any kind. You might be witnessing your child in pain and see also how they lose out on having fun, taking exams and being a normal teenager or youngster. Studies show that parents experience significant distress when faced with the complex and counterintuitive decisions involved in caring for a child with IBS. It’s good to recognise that IBS is something that affects you too. You may find your sleep or mood affected. Seek help when you can. Consider how you deal with stress too.
It is common for parents to be placed in an advocacy role for their child with IBS symptoms. It’s quite a lot already that your child may be in distress. However you too may be facing your own fears, grief, losses, frustration, anger, inadequacy, uncertainty, and powerlessness as a result of your child’s circumstances.
Misreading IBS symptoms and blaming yourself
Parents who may have at the start misread their child’s behaviour can later on feel guilt or shame about that. When a child seems quiet, says they are in pain or don’t want to get out of bed or go to school, some parents jump to seeing that as a “phase,” ‘pigheadedness’ or a sign of something serious such as drug use. Don’t judge yourself too harshly, you were doing the best you could.
Sometimes parents who also have IBS or another similar condition view their child’s IBS as their fault. As if they passed on the condition genetically to their child. This sense of guilt is misplaced as well. Your child’s IBS is not the fault of your genes.
IBS is often diagnosed as excluding other factors. The process takes time and does involve ruling out other more common or dangerous possibilities. It makes sense that as a parent, you might have a similar thought process too. Whatever the circumstances, a diagnosis is rarely obvious or predictable, and your child’s illness is certainly never anyone’s fault. It is important that, as a parent, you recognise the challenge you face. Ensure you make time for yourself too. Acknowledge how you feel about the situation. Discuss your feelings with a trusted friend, counsellor or therapist. Practice letting go of self-judgment. Remember that parenting a child (including adult children) who suffers from any illness can be tough.
Do you nurture or push a child with IBS?
Each child’ situation will vary. Symptoms will vary as well. Some children only have pain, some have constipation or diarrhoea, some will have all the symptoms at the same time. While the specifics may differ, parents face questions about when to nurture and be kind or and when to push and do things that feel even slightly cruel or pain increasing. Of course, all parents want to protect their children from additional pain or discomfort. Though also they will naturally worry that too much mollycoddling could setback their child’s growth and development. Being a parent of a child with irritable bowl syndrome is often a place of conflicted thoughts and arguments over these competing desires. What is the right path to take? So many parents feel a bit lost to know the best way to help their child with IBS. This can also affect siblings and the wider family too.
Always see your child and not the IBS symptoms
It’s important to always accept and not minimise or dismiss your child’s reports of pain. If they feel pain, then, we say, that they do have pain. You may have personal theories and hunches about whether they do really have pain. However children need to feel accepted and listened to. When they say they have pain, this is considered to be the truth. Children with IBS pain or discomfort really do well and improve when their parents normalize the situation in an accepting and matter-of-fact way. Never patronise or dismiss them. This is different from ignoring or discounting a child’s reports of pain or other symptoms. Parents can acknowledge what a child expresses without escalating or reinforcing distress. Parents’ level of acceptance will come through. Never allow your own tiredness or feelings to lead you to be rude or dismissive of pain, which to your child, does feel very real and distressing.
Foster positive self-awareness and positive attitudes to IBS symptoms
The main point I wish to get across is that often there is a paradox with IBS pain. To help, you have to do things which feel counterintuitive. For example, it is recommended to encourage your child to get up and move, doing this despite pain and exhaustion. It is also important to limit activity, despite pain suddenly disappearing or lessening. Parents can help children make sense of their experience. Parent and child both can conduct experiments and develop a shared view of what works and what doesn’t in terms of rest and activity levels.
For example, learn to notice times when your child can get involved in activities that will positively distract them from their IBS pain. Ensure you mention, gently, about that, in the moment. Ask kind, non-patronising questions to better get a picture of your child’s experience. Then, use this new information to help nurture some more self-knowledge about how the pain varies.
“I know you are in pain today, and don’t want to go to see your friends. However, do you remember that last time you didn’t feel enough energy, and then later told dad that you had a good time at Sam’s house.”
“I know you might not really feel like it right now. But remember last week you told me that your pain went down to a “2” (out of 10) when you were with friends? And it had started at an “8,” right?
Rather than giving the choice of whether or not to go, ask questions that create an atmosphere of problem solving:
“What will help you enjoy yourself the most today?”
It’s always best to encourage your child to answer questions for him or herself. Don’t jump in! Providing them the space to create their own solutions and choices, when possible, can help children feel more responsible and in control.
As a parent, you can plant the seeds of ideas by sharing your observations from similar situations:
“Didn’t you say that the seats in that restaurant were really comfortable?”
Friendships are important. Help your child with IBS maintain connections.
Encourage them to brainstorm about relaxing and calming activities your child can do and enjoy when they return home, such as a hot bath or listening to their favourite music. Knowing that something comforting awaits them can increase their willingness to take a risk and participate in activities. This works really well as it both works as an incentive and also a good and positive way to encourage healthy self-care and relaxation too.
Parents who might also have IBS or another similar pain condition can become role models for their children with IBS symptoms. Parents who have pain themselves can demonstrate positive adaption skills. They can show how they cope, are flexible and how they set aside time for relaxation. Importantly they can demonstrate that it is okay to share feelings too.
Validate the difficulties of living with IBS pain
While always giving encouragement to be active and positive, it is very important that family members communicate their thoughts and feelings too. If you remember Fran, who we started off this article with, we saw the importance of asking how your child feels and avoiding snap judgments. It is often the case that since you don’t always see the pain, some children with IBS will face disbelief from others, including sometimes even doctors. Set aside time with your child and offer them support. Practice putting words on their experience, without trying to problem-solve or discourage. Sometimes repeating what they say in similar language can work. Use your intuition about what would help your child feel listened to and understood. For example:
“That sounds really hard.”
“How frustrating.” “How difficult” and so on.
When you name emotions, you demonstrate that you understand what’s going on. This helps and encourages your child with IBS to develop ways to describe and understand their own unique experience.
Let your child know that you are able to handle hearing about their discomfort or difficulties. Children often don’t want to talk immediately. It is also possible that if they see that you are at all distressed by their situation, they may worry that talking to you will distress you more. Often, even if they are not ready to talk, they will value the offer. Parents are in the position to provide unconditional support. Communicating openly and honestly in an age-appropriate way can also build trust and ease fears. You may find it helpful to seek the assistance of a counsellor or similar professional, should you be concerned about how to start off a conversation with your child about how they feel.
It’s really important to ask how your child with IBS is doing. Try to imagine how your child may feel as this helps create empathy. However, avoid dwelling too long, as over concern or talking too much about how pain feels can actually be unhelpful. Talk about feelings but asking frequently each day, only instils a feeling of helplessness or that there is something more wrong than there truly is. Ask in a non-judgmental way and calm manner. Then leave the subject, unless your child raises it. You too also need some respite from thinking about pain. Research suggests that parental distress not only affects parents, but the child and entire family too.
If you have a child with IBS, ensure you look after you too
Plan your own ‘self-care’ activities. Ensure you cultivate healthy and positive aspects of your life. Don’t become overly attached to how your child is doing. Engage in activities which you find pleasurable, relaxing, and fulfilling. Ensure too that you have some supportive relationships, be that with family or friends. Are you getting enough sleep, eating healthy food and taking some exercise? If you neglect your own health, this will only mean you have less energy and patience. If you want to keep positive and on top of everything, you will also need to look after you. So make time to do things you enjoy. Don’t forget that both exercise and laughter can release tension and help you feel good too.
Watch out for ‘negative self-talk’. These might be thoughts that you feel guilty about having fun, especially when your child is in pain from IBS. Watch out for thoughts that begin with the word “should”. Here are two examples:
“I shouldn’t be having fun if my child is in pain.”
“I shouldn’t complain about how I feel when they have it worse …”
You are entitled to look after you. You can do this and also feel and show kindness and care for your child. It’s okay to have a night out and enjoy yourself. Look for ways to keep your child’s medical condition from overwhelming your own life, relationships, and family. Sometimes this really does mean you need to set aside time for yourself. This can be setting aside time for family and friends and activities you do enjoy. If you have other children, ensure they receive attention as well.
Of course, know what works and feels comfortable. Take “time outs” as needed. Do your best to work out what is important to do and what is not so important. Keep an open, flexible and gentle approach to decisions.
The value of support from others
No one is a superman or wonder woman. We all need help from time to time. You are doing your best. However, at times, you are likely to struggle. Looking after a child with pain or other IBS symptoms, can leave you feeling frustrated, worried, disappointed, tired or even angry. You are not alone. There are online sites or Facebook groups with tips and help. Your doctor may have suggestions too. Psychotherapy and support groups may be available to offer support and coping skills. If you feel at all overwhelmed, a couple of sessions with a counsellor may be just the right approach for you.
You can also look to other parents of children with IBS, going through a similar journey to give support and some practical ideas. At the same time, notice if you or your child are beginning to identify with an “illness community”. You are not the illness. Do not allow yourself to narrow yourself or your identity to only be about illness. Work out how to live a full and active daily life as possible. When you look after yourself, engage in activities you enjoy, maintain friendships and relationships, and connect with the wider community. This will all help you separate your identity from the “illness”. Remember that IBS is just a facet of your and your child’s experience.
I help children with IBS
At my central London clinic I see many children and teens with IBS symptoms and other functional gut related conditions. I frequently receive referrals from gastroenterologists and pediatricians. To read more about my IBS pain and symptom reduction sessions click here.