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Kids Korner Archive: Migraine May Accompany Divorce

By Kathleen Farmer
PsyD, Headache Care Center, Springfield, Missouri

Divorce is much like a dance, with children playing an integral part. They take on different parts of the dance — they absorb the tension, believing they are being punished for misbehavior, and they cling or push away. A child may attempt to parent the parents, modeling the art of sharing and getting along, or s/he may transform into a hellion on wheels, destroying everything in his wake, including the rift between Mom and Dad.

The distress children feel can also be physical. This may be expressed as stomachaches and nightmares. And under such stress, the genetic predisposition to migraine may erupt into a first attack. In fact, a child often becomes the designated patient in the hope of holding the family together by diverting attention to his or her health instead of the disintegrating relationship between parents.

Recurrent headaches in children are most often migraine and are generally precipitated by an environment that overwhelms the child. Reassurance and encouraging the child to continue his/her regular routines are ways to focus on today rather the unknown of tomorrow. Here are other scenarios and solutions for helping children weather divorce and the migraine that may accompany it.

Somatizing Stress

Physical pain is easier to bear and express than emotional. It’s tangible, diagnosable and understandable. People feel sorry for a person in pain and reach out to soothe the hurt. Pain interrupts the mundane routine and rest is usually the best medicine. But the longer the physical problem occurs, the harder it is to give it up.

The need to be needed is also seductive to the parent who feels wronged or abandoned. This can lead to the development of a co-dependent relationship between child and parent, where the child’s pain or illness brings the parent closer. Co-dependency, which is automatic and unconscious, convinces the child and the parent that they are doing the best they can. In reality, when the child feels healthy, the parent becomes more needy.

Solution: It’s important that children not experience the pain of headache as a reprieve from the pain of divorce. When talking to your child, focus on feelings, saying something like: “Your pain hurts me, too. Tell me about it.” In this way the parent helps the child see that the headache is an expression of the child’s distress over the family breaking up. Tapping into the emotional pain helps reduce the physical pain. If a co-dependent relationship exists, therapeutic help may be needed.

The Helper

As a migraineur, this child is highly sensitive to the feelings of the family and may attempt to protect one parent by intercepting the barbs thrown by the other. He aims to keep his parents happy by doing everything right so they have less to worry about. He has a hard time sleeping, worrying that he should be looking after his parents. Trying to out-parent his parents may trigger headaches.

Solution: Give the child permission to be a kid. The message should be: “You can’t fix this. It’s up to us to work things out. Maybe we won’t be able to, but your job is to enjoy childhood.”

Acting Out Fear

To every request, this child has the same response: “No! You can’t make me!” She fights on the playground during recess. She’s sent to the principal’s office for talking back to the teacher. Her grades are dropping. She has become a stranger to her parents. She is acting out her fear that her parents are about to leave her. And she has a headache every day. She complains she’s too sick to go to school, but she feels just as bad when she stays home.

Solution: This child needs to be held and reassured that her parents will always be there for her, even if not for each other. The adults in her life need to understand that her “bad” behaviors are her best attempts at beating back the fear that is creeping up on her, threatening to take her over. She needs an opportunity to act out her fear through games or toys, drawing, or role playing in a safe place under the supervision of an understanding, supportive adult, perhaps a therapist. As her fear lessens, her headaches will become less frequent as well.

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