Seven Ways to Lessen Migraine's Impact on Your Family
Last updated: September 2023
"I feel so guilty for what my migraine attacks do to my kids!" If you’re a parent with migraine, you’ve likely had a similar thought about your own children. It’s impossible to deny that a parent having migraine does have an impact on children. However, parents perceive a higher burden on their children than the kids themselves do, according to research presented at the American Headache Society conference in June.
Dr. Dawn Buse, Ph.D., a psychologist who is the study’s lead researcher, put together these tips for how parents can calm and reassure children of parents with migraine. (While the information focuses on helping kids, many of her suggestions can apply to any family relationship.)
How to ease the burden of migraine on your family
A parent’s chronic condition or disease such as migraine can lead to feelings of anxiety, insecurity and uncertainty for children and adolescents. Family roles, schedules and routines can be seriously disrupted. The child or adolescent may also be fearful when seeing the parent in pain and disabled by migraine symptoms. However, there are several things that parents with migraine can do to calm and reassure their children and adolescents.
Model calm coping behavior
Children take cues from their parents as to how to react to situations. It is important that the parent discuss migraine clearly and calmly and try to avoid expressing their own feelings of fear, anxiety, or frustration with younger children. Parents can choose to share their feelings with adolescents by speaking at an age-appropriate level to validate the adolescent’s feelings and so that the adolescent knows that the parent may share their feelings about the disease. For example, a parent may say to a child, “I know that you are disappointed that I cannot go to the beach with you today due to a migraine. I want you to know that I am disappointed too.”
Educate them on the disease
It is important to explain migraine to the child using an age-appropriate level of information and terms that the child will understand. Ideally, this should happen before or between attacks, if possible, when the parent can best communicate. It may be helpful to have a second parent or other family member involved in this discussion, if possible. This may include explaining what the parent experiences during the migraine attack (including all four phases: prodrome, aura, headache, and postdrome) so that the child knows what to expect. Parents should reassure the child that there are no long-term consequences to the attacks, and the parent will return to their normal level of functioning after the attack has passed.
Children can imagine the worst, so a parent should explain explicitly that they will not die or be permanently disabled by the attack. In the case of daily migraine or continuous pain, the parent should explain that they are under the care of a doctor and have a treatment plan (if this is the case) and explain that they are working with their doctor to reduce the number and severity of migraine attacks. Parents should explain their treatments to a child and explain that these will help them manage the attack and feel better as quickly as possible.
To the greatest extent possible, try to maintain routines in the household. A chronic illness can be disruptive, and the sometimes random occurrence of migraine attacks can make planning very difficult. If parents can set up routines that can continue even in their absence, children will not experience as much disruption. For example, a parent may want to prepare several dinners in advance and have some in the freezer for evenings when he or she does not feel well enough to cook. School supplies can be packed and kept in the same location every evening, making a morning with a migraine easier to navigate. Or preparation for a special event such as shopping or packing can occur in advance in case a last-minute migraine makes preparation difficult.
Also, empower children to engage in self-care and household actives that are age-appropriate on their own. Children can be taught to help in household chores and responsibilities and be given the freedom to make some predetermined choices and decisions in the house when the parent is unavailable to do so. A “migraine day” plan can even be arranged in advance both for school days and days at home with checklists for school days and fun options for days at home.
Allow children to help
Give children age-appropriate tasks that they can do to help their parent during a migraine attack. Feelings of helplessness can lead to fear, anxiety, and depression. By allowing children to help during an attack, they not only make the parent feel better, but they feel empowered and more confident too. This may range from asking a young child to bring a cool washcloth to asking an older child to bring a snack or medication if a parent is disabled by a migraine.
Ask for and accept help from others
Parents should ask for and accept help from others including family, friends, and other parents. If people ask if they can help, say yes. Others can help with household responsibilities, driving, shopping, running errands, and childcare on days with migraine. Allowing people to help also makes them feel empowered and reduces feelings of helplessness and worry.
Let go of expectations and worries
Know that not everything will get done, and not everything will be done perfectly, but that is OK. Remember that children are resilient, and growing up with a parent with migraine will not permanently harm their sense of confidence or happiness. In fact, it may help make them stronger and more flexible adults who are better equipped to face the challenges that life offers.
Seek professional help when needed
If stress, anxiety, or depression becomes overwhelming for you or your child, speak with your doctor or mental health professional. There are psychologists (like myself) who are specially trained to work with people with chronic illnesses and their families. Some of the work will include learning coping skills, stress management, and improving family communication.
Are the family and friends you will be seeing this holiday season understanding about migraine?