Functional GI and motility disorders, such as functional abdominal pain syndrome or irritable bowel syndrome, are chronic conditions. They affect individuals of all ages, including kids and teens. Back-to-school time can bring up some situations that cause children and parents to feel stress or anxiety. If your child has been diagnosed with one of these disorders, here are some rules of thumb for navigating through this exciting, yet challenging, time of year.

School-Day Bellyaches
Every child complains of a bellyache now and then. How can a parent tell if a child’s functional GI symptoms are acting up or not? When is it time to call the doctor? Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Some bellyaches come from too much excitement or from worrying.
  • You will likely notice a change in behavior in children that are non-verbal or too young to describe their pain. Refusal to eat and/or poop are two signs that indicate it’s time for a visit to the doctor.
  • If chronic or recurrent bellyaches prevent a child from doing their usual activities like eating, going to school, playing with friends, or sleeping through the night, then it is time to see your doctor.

Managing School-Related Issues
Symptoms of a functional GI disorder can be unpredictable. Here are some tips to help your child go about daily life and manage school-related issues:

  • A child can go to school even if they have some discomfort. Parents can help encourage the child to engage in activities, including classes, even though they are not feeling comfortable. Distracting activities can help reduce pain.
  • Help the child begin to get comfortable using bathrooms outside the home by gradually using bathrooms at a friend’s house, the library, or the mall. This will help desensitize the fear of strange bathrooms.
  • Have your child’s doctor write a letter to the school saying that your child has a gastrointestinal disorder that requires him or her to use the bathroom more frequently. You don’t have to say which disorder, just explain that the child may not anticipate when it’s going to happen or may need to use the bathroom urgently. Making the faculty aware of the situation can help them understand some of your child’s behaviors and also make your child feel less anxious about going to school.
  • Give your child a rehearsed response to explain why they may need to use the bathroom a lot or have missed a lot of classes. Other kids might suspect they are faking it or ask, “What’s wrong with you?” A simple response of, “I had something wrong with my stomach and it’s getting better but it still bothers me sometimes,” can satisfy other kids’ curiosity and take care of the questions.

Parents can take an active role in helping a child manage symptoms. A parent’s comments and reactions may affect a child’s behavior and pain. Expressing worry or doubt about the pain may make a child more anxious. Showing understanding and support without encouraging behavior that emphasizes sickness will help the child feel better.

Learn More
Read more about Bellyaches in Children, by Dr. Paul Hyman
Read more about Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Abdominal Pain, from an interview with Dr. Lynn Walker
Read more about Functional Abdominal Pain in Children and Adolescents, by Dr. Miguel Saps and Dr. Gati Dhroove

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Talking about GI disorders in Children