When Kids’ Tummy Trouble Is Actually Stress

How to help calm your child’s mind and tummy.

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Stomach discomfort is a common occurrence in children. Tummy issues can arise for a variety of reasons, from dehydration or food sensitivities to indigestion or a stomach bug. However, sometimes there may be an emotional component to your child’s tummy trouble. If they’re upset or worried about something, that too can manifest as stomach discomfort—especially if your child is having trouble verbalizing what’s bothering them. But how do you know if it’s something physical or situational? And, what can you do to help ease your child’s mind (and tummy)? 

Read on to learn the answers to those questions and more. Plus, find out what things you shouldn’t do to “help.”

Can Stress Cause Your Stomach To Be Upset?

You guessed it: yes, stress and tummy aches can go hand-in-hand. The key is knowing how to identify that emotional reactions are what’s causing your child’s belly woes. If you’ve ruled out any physical causes of stomach discomfort, and are tempted to think your child is complaining of tummy trouble to merely get out of something that they don’t want to do, try taking another look at the situation. Your child may be acting quieter or louder than normal, or have trouble relating their feelings or thoughts when asked. Frequent tummy issues can also be a clue, as can where (hint: near their belly button) and when the stomach stress manifests itself. 

Does your child tend to have a stomach ache before a specific event? If their complaints of an upset belly are usually in the morning before school, that could be a sign it’s stress-induced. Same with butterflies before a social event, like a birthday party, or even throwing up before a school performance. Take note of when they occur and see if you can identify a pattern to understand more about what may be triggering your child’s upset belly.

Of course, if your child’s tummy issues are causing them distress or persisting for a long period of time, you may want to speak with your pediatrician.

What Does a Stress Stomach Ache Feel Like?

The best way to understand your kid’s stress belly ache might be to understand how stress affects it. Stress can manifest in many ways: stomach discomfort may be the only symptom, or there could be others such as a headache, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. A racing heart, shakiness, and sweating may also accompany stress-induced tummy trouble. 

All these symptoms are related to your child’s fight-or-flight response to situations they perceive as dangerous, whether mental or physical. This causes their body to divert blood flow away from their digestive system to prepare them to either “fight” or “flee,” which results in an upset tummy. This reaction can’t actually harm your child. It’s essentially just a false alarm—albeit caused by real feelings.

What You Should Not Do To Help Your Kid’s Stress Stomach Ache

Before we get into how you may be able to help relieve your child’s stomach stress, it’s important to note a few things, as parents, that we should try to avoid doing. We know it can be hard to see our children with an uncomfortable tummy ache, especially if a menace like stress is what’s causing it. But the last thing we would want to do is make it worse.

Parenting is full of difficult decisions. You may instinctively feel like the best solution is to allow your child to stay safe and comfortable at home. But this can create a slippery slope. The more you let them avoid their stressor, the more they may rather stay home, and the harder it may be to get them out of the house. Even more counterproductive is the fact that by allowing your kid to avoid a situation that causes them stress, like school or parties, you’re actually reinforcing that stress trigger—your child can’t learn to tolerate the experience if they’re not coming face-to-face with it.

It’s all about striking the right balance between empathy and pragmatism. A helpful approach could be to let your child know that you understand that they don’t feel well, but also that you both know that it’s due to stress and that you’re confident they can get through it. 

Your choice of words also matters at times like these. For example, try to avoid asking your kid leading questions like, “Are you nervous about your test today?” That might unintentionally imply that you expect them to worry. Instead, use open-ended questions such as, “How do you think you’ll do on your test?”

What Can You Do To Help Your Kid’s Stress Tummy Ache?

Now that you’re up on how to identify stress-induced belly issues, as well as things to avoid, we’re sharing a few ways that may be able to help your youngster ease their tension. However, if your child’s stomach ache is disrupting their daily life, such as affecting their ability to concentrate at school, participate in activities, or socialize with peers, speak to your pediatrician. Professional medical or psychological intervention may be in order. If not, try teaching your child some of the following techniques adapted from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness training. They may help your kid learn how to cope better with stress and calm themselves down. You may even want to try them yourself!

Take deep breaths: Encourage your child to belly-breathe, a way of inhaling that draws in air by expanding their belly as far as it will go. This slows each breath, which can help promote relaxation by lowering their heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones. The simple exercise can also help stretch out tense belly muscles.

Be mindful: Promote their understanding of the value of distraction. Have them try and focus on something in their immediate environment when they're experiencing stress, instead of their bothersome belly. By turning their attention to what they are seeing and hearing, it might help take their mind off their churning tummy and ground them.

Put worries in their place: Teach your child to confront and “talk back to” their worries. These are simple statements that they can say out loud or to themselves like: “I’m feeling uncomfortable, but I can handle it,” or “I am bigger than my stress.” If they repeat these words like a mantra, it may help them reassure themselves and boost their confidence in the situation and their own capabilities.

Start the coping process before the stressful event: Have your child learn to get ahead of uncomfortable moments that might cause stomach stress, like taking a test or going to the dentist. By anticipating that they might have some discomfort, they can better plan for how they can counteract it—even with some of these other techniques. It can help teach them that the more you push through an unpleasant event, the easier it will get with time.

Accept your discomfort: We can’t all love every moment of every day; stressful situations do come up. Let your child know this, and let them know that it’s OK to acknowledge the discomfort, rather than fight it. Instead of trying to push their feelings away, encourage them to recognize and tolerate them, and assure them they’ll come out the other side intact. Nothing lasts forever, even stressful events.

As with all challenging circumstances, a strong support system can help bolster you and your child’s stress-reducing efforts. If the issue arises at school, speak with your child’s teacher or school counselor about it; that way, they’re aware your child is struggling and may be able to help. Same goes for a sports coach or dance teacher. As they say, sometimes it takes a village. 

Fortunately, stressed-induced tummy issues tend to be more common in grade school. As children grow into teenagers and adults, they learn to manage stress in other ways. And, with the above techniques, they may be able to learn to cope with it better in the long run.

Next: Do you struggle to get your child to try new foods? Read 10 Ways To Help Picky Eaters.


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