Some of the most precious times with my children revolve around my Migraine attacks.
Talking to our children about Migraine (or any illness) isn’t an easy thing to do. Some things you’ll consider when deciding what to tell, or how to tell them include your family’s personal beliefs as well as bare facts.
Cultural and religious beliefs are an important consideration too. The most important thing to understand, however, is that they know something is wrong already. You aren’t hiding anything from them no matter how much you wish to protect them. They will worry about you and imagine things if they aren’t comfortable that you are being open with them. Often children will assume they did something to make you hurt, and that is stress we don’t want them to be saddled with. Moreover, children who understand Migraine are usually more likely to want to be helpful and cooperative during an attack.
Telling your child something so personal often creates a feeling of intimacy and closeness within the family too. The child understands that you have entrusted them with this knowledge, and often that trust is reciprocated later.
Others around you will talk about Migraine, so making sure your child has a good basic understanding of this illness is important. A Migraine Disease diagnosis often comes complete with stigma and a lot of outside misinformation that may worry or confuse your child. The best way to fight this is with education, and you will have to be the teacher. Your child will be stressed and upset if they think you are not being truthful and open with them.
When should I tell my child?
The younger your children are when you tell them, the easier they understand it and accept it as merely a fact of life. Parents often find the easiest and most natural time to tell their children about Migraine is soon after diagnosis. As a parent, you may not have much information yourself at this time, so telling your children that you will share other information about your Migraine Disease as you learn it will again help them to understand the process and feel comfortable that you are keeping the lines of communication open.
Who should tell my child?
I encourage the patient to be the one to initially tell their children about an illness. There are some examples where this isn’t the case, such as when the patient is hospitalized. Children want to know that you care enough about them to share something important. How this is accomplished may open — or close — the doors of communication between parent and child for the rest of their lives.
If your child is older, or after he/she has not taken the diagnosis seriously, he/she may benefit from going with you to a doctor’s appointment. Tell the doctor why they are with you, and encourage the child to come armed with a list of questions or concerns.
How should I tell my child?
Your child is going to have questions about your Migraine disease. They may be afraid that they will “catch” it, or that they may get it later too. Education sets aside many of these fears and concerns. How much information you give your child will depend a lot on his/her age. Each child is different though, so ultimately you will have to decide what to tell them and when.
- 0-3 — This can be a difficult age to try to explain Migraine. However, if you break it down into tiny bites, it is easily assimilated at this age as a normal part of routine. Always use the correct terms — use the word Migraine instead of headache. Tell them what you feel. Are you sick to your stomach? Does the light hurt? Does noise hurt? Children are often much smarter than we give them credit for, and can be very sympathetic. Nurturing that at this age is important so that sympathy for others will carry over into adulthood. Not talking frankly with your child can lead to feelings of unnecessary stress and guilt.
- 4-8 — This is a much easier age. Analogies are more easily understood. “My head feels like someone is hitting me with a hammer” or “This Migraine makes me feel like I have a very bad case of the flu”. This is also the age where the child likes to help their parent, so give them a job such as bringing you cold washcloths. Teach them how to be “in charge” of younger siblings, or even let them be “in charge” of your care. Give them special things to do during your Migraine and praise them for each baby step they do correctly. Genetically there is a 50% chance that they will suffer Migraine later in life, so learning how a parent deals with theirs is the first step they will take toward understanding how to live gracefully with their own Migraine Disease. Children learn what they live.
- 9-13 — This age child often wants details of what is going on, and they want details how they can help you feel better. They may be less likely to ask questions, so it is more important for you to create an ongoing conversation with them. Ask them if they have any questions. Volunteer information when you are alone together. This is also an age where they may begin having their own Migraine attacks, so the conversation may become even more personal.
- 14 and up — These kids have an amazing capacity for understanding. Talk to them like the small adults they are. At this age, they love amazing factoids (like this: The brain makes up 2% of body weight, yet uses 20% of the body’s energy supplies. This is one reason why metabolic triggers are such a problem for Migraineurs) and sharing one every once in a while is a way to open the door for further questions. Teaching opportunities for this age group are everywhere. They may roll their eyes at you, but they will remember what you’ve told them. Remember that the frontal cortex of their brains has not yet fully formed. Decision making is not their forte’ yet. This means you should continue to give them choices and responsibilities in their lives, and teach passively by showing or doing. For example: In helping you cook a meal, you can tell them why you are using certain things and not another.
Telling your child about your Migraine disease is an ongoing process called education.
Some children will try to hide their feelings and questions when they are told. This is often either out of fear, or because they want to protect their parent from becoming upset. Additionally, it’s important for parents to realize that how their child feels about the diagnosis is likely to change over time. These are all very good reasons to support your child and keep the lines of communication open and active in both directions.
I’ve told my child — now what?
Unfortunately, the diagnosis of Migraine Disease often means changes will start to happen in your child’s life too. In order for you to avoid triggers, you may have to change the food you eat and how/when you eat it. The added stress of Migraine attacks, doctors office visits, new medicines and the financial burden of chronic illness may cause problems within the family unit no matter how strong it is. Activities may be missed, and you may be perceived as less reliable than before your Migraine Disease.
It’s vitally important that you try to maintain the same basic family routines as before the diagnosis. Changes however, are imminent. These unwanted changes create a feeling of upheaval to a child, and a feeling of a loss of control. To help your child feel that they still have some power over their lives, offer them choices and give them responsibilities.
Choices: Your child may no longer be able to have his/her favorite canned soup for lunch anymore, but letting them choose between other safer (for your Migraine) alternatives gives the child a sense of at least some control over their life at a time when it seems the family is being ruled by chronic illness. Instead of telling your child to put a coat on before going outside, give them a choice of coats to wear that day. Instead of telling a child simply to feed the dog, give them the choice of when they want to do it. Choices = power, and an empowered child is usually a happier one. Your collective lives may be more limited, but change doesn’t have to mean something worse.
Responsibilities: In a time when a child feels like they are along for the ride, giving them responsibilities also gives them a sense of power and control over their daily lives that may now be missing. Reward when those responsibilities are accomplished is equally as important in their lives. For younger children, a weekly chart is often very helpful. Allow the child to choose which responsibilities he/she wants to take on for the week and write them down. When the responsibility is taken care of, mark it off the chart. In our family, each mark was worth a quarter. At the end of the week I took them shopping for something special they could choose themselves, or they could save their quarters for something super special later. That is the delayed gratification that helps them learn patience. Make sure those quarters are stored someplace they can see the pile grow. This is the instant gratification they need to stay motivated.
I have sweet memories of my daughter sitting next to me on the bed, wiping the sweaty hair from my forehead. She sang me songs, ever so softly because she knew that LOUD meant more pain for me. She delighted in being able to help me by taking a wet washcloth and getting it damp in the cold water again. Sometimes she would just walk next to the bed, lean over and ever-so-gently touch my shoulders in the barest wisp of a hug. The soft kisses on my cheek were sweet as candy.
She busied herself with crayons and paper, making me beautiful pictures of the outdoors, dogs, cats and horses because she knew how much I loved them. She would make me pretend-food in her own tiny kitchen, setting it next to the bed, or the couch, or wherever I was Migraining… “just in case” I got hungry.
How did you tell your child about your Migraine diagnosis? How did they react?