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The physicality of angst: Children and phantom ailments

Over a period of a few weeks this May, Everett kept insisting his legs were full of pain alternating between dull and shooting. It had started a day or two after the time on the playground in which he'd gotten into a conflict with some older kids. As far as I can figure out, he was the victim, and a righteous one, too; he'd been protecting another, littler child, and ended up with a nasty scrape and bruise on his knee. I expressed what I thought was appropriate solicitation and pride; for once, he seemed to have handled a really unfair situation without retaliating with fury.

But now, it was weeks later, and he'd run up and down stairs and then protest in screaming pain when I tried to get him to ride his bike, or walk somewhere with me. Even riding on the back of my bike, he said, was too much. Finally I made an appointment for the next afternoon at the doctor's office, worried that there was some real ailment -- a bone marrow problem, maybe? -- I wasn't giving its due.

The day of the appointment, he couldn't get going to school; if he was to stay home, I told him, he'd have to ride his own bike on a series of errands I'd planned. By appointment time, we were on mile #11 and he was fine. As I've gone through a lot with Everett, who's now eight, and his outsized reactions to the sort of things many children would find only mildly upsetting, I only added it to my mental portrait of his challenges and let it be.

Then, this weekend, we got a question from a mama we know. Her younger son struggled with a potentially fatal illness when he was a toddler, and recently gave his family another confidence-shaking scare, until test results came back, indicating that he was indeed fine. The whole family had talked about their fears together, but it was very stressful. Now, she's worried about her older child.

My nine-year-old son has recently started seriously overreacting when he gets hurt. I have taken him to the ER twice recently thinking if he's screaming so badly perhaps he does have broken fingers or dislocated shoulder (two separate incidents). Nothing is ever diagnosed. He's always fine and the trauma is completely over two hours later. These type of incidents have been increasing lately.

I am wondering if his overreacting might be a result from the stress at home over the last few weeks. I am also wondering if he's trying desperately to get more attention from me even though this summer we have been spending most days together and I am available, physically, emotionally. I am here for him.

My question for other mamas is, is this something I should seek professional advice for; should I look into a few sessions with a child therapist? Or, will he just grow out of this? Could it just be a phase?


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I offer a weekly Parent and Child Thai Massage Drop In Class Sundays from 10-11 am at the Whole Foods at 3535 NE 15th Ave, Portland. Thai massage (a fully clothed, oil free bodywork) isn't a cure-all but it is a wonderful way for parents to share caring touch with their kids and give kids an relaxing opportunity to get "in-tune" with their bodies. My website www.thaimassageforfamilies.com lists a lot of professional research documenting the benefits of massage for kids.

Hope this is of benefit to you and others!
Judith Moran

I'd say if the "medical" problems are serious enough for you to schedule appointments or visit the ER, then the underlying stress and emotional upset is serious enough to seek some professional help. I'm not sure that means therapist visits for your son--it might mean therapist visits for you to give you insight and tools for; it might mean massage for your son--addressing physical expressions of stress; it might mean meditation or yoga. But I'd start looking for help somewhere.

Reading your post, there was one thing that stuck me that I thought I'd mention, just in case. My son has also has had some pretty significant oversensitivity problems and after extensive doctor visits and testing, found out that it was mostly related to a gluten allergy. Taking that out of his diet (as well as detoxing), he's a different child but even if he has a little bit, he is crying over small things, easily frustrated and generally very emotional. I really can't answer to the rest, but I do know that gluten allergy/sensitivity can run in families and affect all kids to some extent.
I also wanted to mention that my other son gets shooting leg pains. They are those odd, mysterious "growing pains" that surface intermittently, but are genuinely painful since nothing else seems to make him cry. Maybe the leg pains were related to this?
It's such a puzzle to figure the emotional/physical well being of our kids sometimes. Glad that you are looking for answers. I wish you well!

my 8.5 yr old son also gets shooting pain in his legs. he cries and sometimes will carry on quite a fuss about it. I think this is due to his frustration with being hurt, not the pain itself. when he hurts himself he is scared and frustrated and he makes it sound like the pain could kill him. he definitely has been overreacting to injuries compared to when he was younger when he would "hide" his injuries from us. I am thinking that this is a phase because when he gets hurt when friends are around, his reaction is definitely less than the reaction when it is just us.

There is a web sight http://www.handinhandparenting.org/ that I refer to a lot when I am stumped as a parent. You can look up articles by topic and get some helpful ideas. Patty Wipfler is the founder and she is amazing. She wrote a small book that you can order on her web sight called Listening Effectively to Children. This books talks about how to help your kids with big fears, anger, tantrums, play listening, special time and how to stay listening to help your child through the hard stuff.
It gives a clear understanding of
how and why kids upsets can look so HUGE one minute and they are fine the next. That understanding has made it so much easier for me to listen when it's happening and not be scared something really bad is happening.

There is also a Yahoo group that you can join to get/ give support for other Mamas who do Hand in Hand Parenting.
It's a great resource!

I second the recommendation for checking out http://www.handinhandparenting.org/

It's an incredible resource for connected, playful, parenting that has made a huge difference in my family's life and helping our daughter work through her fears.

If you check it out and have any questions, please ask.

My first instinct is to always check for physical things before reading more into it. He complains of leg pain? Maybe potassium supplements or extra bananas. If that doesn't work, a hot pack and/or quiet time with mama rubbing his calves might help. My son over reacts when he gets hurt as well and I remind him that if I take him to urgent care, we will likely have to wait for a long time and unless something is truly wrong there is not much the doctor can do. Then I offer a warm bath/hot pack/hot tea and tell him to think about it for a minute. This usually results in a leg that must be broken (in his opinion)to a leg that is going to have a bruise and no trip to urgent care.

My son is a lot like the children mentioned above, and sometimes complains of leg pain. He is getting extensive cranio-sacral treatment for food sensitivities.

I was also reading about restless leg syndrome (for myself) and found out that this is something that children can have to, and it often is misdiagnosed as an attention and hyperactivity issue. I don't know if this is the case for my son or yours, but it could be something to look into.

August- Could you recommend a cranio-sacral therapist?

When my kids were younger (they're all soundly in their teens now) we did have some incidents like this...

With one kid - it turned out to be bonafide growing pains - of the extraordinary type. The pediatrician says some kids really do get them - they are fleeting for some kids - and can be extremely disconcerting for a kid who feels fine one moment, and then another NOT.

With another kid - we noticed a slight decrease in mobility, over the course of months growing complaints of discomfort, and eventually - outright misery, tears, cries of dismay by the end of each night. The pediatrician pooh poohed us and chastised us for being "too sympathetic" and opined that the kid was simply looking for attention. We sidestepped the pediatrician and visited an orthopedist - who promptly ordered x-rays and diagnosed a serious (potentially mobility-stealing) orthopedic disease, and said kid is now treated at Shriner's for this disease. (Yes, we canned the pediatrician!)

Every kid is so unique. I dunno - I think I'd much rather be accused of being too sympathetic and taking the time to invest with my kid and explore the possibilities and love SOUNDLY as well as making sure all of the physical concerns are addressed as well. You know?!

Interesting that the desire for attention doesn't go away, either - even as big strapping teenagers, they occasionally have flare ups of this, and just need the safety of Mom's attention, care, and love!

Thea -- For cranio-sacral I highly recommend Dr Arah McGlaughlin at 'Core Elements' (located at 13112 NE Halsey). Her focus is on mothers and children. She looks like a barbie doll, but with a lot more soul, presence and intuition.

Other great C-S practitioners:

- Liz Wallace @ Zenana Spa
- Amy Watson @ 5515 NE 30th

Your son sounds a lot like me when I was young--which ended up being two separate issues. I made a much bigger deal than necessary out of sore throats and turned ankles to name a few, because I wanted to be special. The other issue was that I did have terrible pains in my arms and legs that my mom put off as generic growing pains. They continued into adulthood and when I found out I could not eat gluten, I also found out that this is one of the many possible symptoms. Thea also mentioned this and I'd recommend checking into it as it is much more common than we have been lead to believe.

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