“My tummy hurts.” If you are a parent, you’ve likely heard this complaint more than a few times.
The reasons for a child’s abdominal pain vary from the serious, such as appendicitis, to the non-serious, including lactose intolerance. However, the most common reason children complain of tummy aches is related to emotional concerns, rather than physical.
“The most common reasons for stomach pain in kids are constipation, stress or anxiety, and often, the constipation is due to stress or anxiety,” says Dr. Rebecca Smith, a Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group family medicine doctor. “After constipation and stress, infection — known as gastroenteritis — is the next most common cause. It is much rarer to have serious issues such as appendicitis, celiac disease or obstruction.”
While Dr. Smith stresses the seriousness of some causes of abdominal pain, which require immediate medical attention, she offers a few tips for parents to help relieve their child’s discomfort due to constipation or anxiety.
If the cause of a child’s pain is non-serious and due to constipation:
- Ensure they are well-hydrated.
- Increase their daily intake of fruits and vegetables.
- Encourage your child to move through play, sports or fun family activities.
- Speak with your child’s teacher if school rules are causing your child to postpone bathroom visits.
- Talk with your child’s doctor about using a mild, over-the-counter powder laxative as needed, even daily.
- Pay attention to nonverbal cues, such as not wanting to do certain activities or avoidance of certain people.
- Ask them what they’re feeling, empathize with them and ask how you can help.
- Ask a teacher or have a therapist talk to your child. This often helps to get more information from children who may be embarrassed or afraid to talk about worries with their parents.
- Teach your child ways to calm themselves through breathing exercises and relaxation exercises. One idea is to help your child imagine they are in a beautiful, restful place. Talk about all of the wonderful sights, sounds and smells they might experience.
“I had a patient who was having stomach issues due to being uncomfortable riding the school bus with a particular group of students,” says Dr. Smith. “Every morning, he complained of abdominal pain and occasionally diarrhea, but this wasn’t present on weekends, and the complaints decreased when he changed the bus he took to school. Paying attention to changes in behavior around activities or people can be telling and help guide a parent in ways to relieve their child’s discomfort.”
If your child is experiencing recurrent abdominal pain, Dr. Smith advises you speak with his or her doctor. Be prepared to share your child’s frequency and consistency of bowel movements; details regarding the occurrence of stomachache complaints; whether the complaints follow the consumption of certain foods or drinks; and if there are any concerns related to your child’s life at home or in school.