By Andy Cohen, a Psychoanalytic Candidate, Community Art Counsellor, artist and mother of 2. She is also the author and illustrator of Wish You Were Here, a children’s book which explores loss and parenting with a light-hearted touch.
Stomach aches in children are a lot more complicated than they appear. They are emotionally charged. Bodies are amazing because when words fail, there they are waiting to speak up. This often happens in subtle ways, like the time you screamed at your hubby because you were exhausted and couldn’t hack one more request. Your feeling of overwhelm was palpable but came out in a high pitch and an aggressive tone. These are the daily reminders of how body, mind and feelings buddy-up; picking up where the other left off. This is particularly relevant to kids who lack the emotional maturity and vocab to say what they feel, when they feel it. So where do the feelings go if they aren’t verbalised? Often they go straight back into the body. First stop: The tummy.
A stomach is a place where things go to be digested
When we bite off big chunks of a meal and swallow them whole, the body doesn’t like it. We get hiccups or indigestion. The tummy is a sensitive place that responds to what and how we take stuff in. Biology backs this up: The stomach is home to the enteric nervous system and is often called your second brain. Lots of nerves and big feelings stir up the stomach and cause a physical reaction that then sends messages all over the body. It feels horrible and can really take over.
A tummy is a pit to hold scary things
There is a reason why anxiety is often called that ‘pit in your stomach.’ Anxiety is a dark and heavy thing. And emotionally speaking, the stomach is a low point in the body where heavy feelings that aren’t digested, fall. All these unnamed feelings cause a bottleneck that blocks all the other emotions from getting through. As pressure builds up, it starts to burn. This is the ache at the bottom of the bowel. So when a child says, “I have a tummy ache” they may also be trying to tell you that they are feeling anxious about something.
How to ease stomach aches in children
The most important thing to remember is that your little one is not making up the pain. It is real. Once you have ruled out any other serious gastro-issues and treated the pain, the next step is to acknowledge there may be more going on. So consider context. A stomach ache in children is a little red flag that can be really useful to parents. If your child has a sore tummy, try and understand what external emotional triggers are in the mix.
Is there something going on at school?
Are you working a bit more than usual?
Are they conquering a new milestone or mastering a new skill?
It may be obvious or it could be something more obscure. Ideally you want to name the anxiety for them. Or (if they are old enough) ask,
What else is on your mind?
And then (tummy to tummy), hug it out. In the hopes that the feeling can move out of the tummy and back into words where it belongs.