Differentiating between your child's real or fake pain

Who has ever seen their child refuse to go to daycare or to Aunt Simone under the pretext that they have a stomachache? Who has ever put a bandage on an invisible boo-boo to reassure their little girl?

Real or fake?     

Did you know that stomachache is the main cause of medical consultation in young children? However, in nearly 90% of cases, it is not caused by a physical problem. It is therefore important to know – for the 10% of actual physical causes – that when the stomach pains are part of a major problem, they are usually accompanied by other symptoms: fever, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite or weight, drowsiness, etc. These ailments, of course, require medical attention.

Other children do what is called "somatization, which means that a psychological discomfort or trauma will result in real physical symptoms: eczema, asthma, diarrhea, etc." In all these cases, it is important to consult your family doctor who will recommend you to the appropriate specialist.

When your child tells you that something’s hurting without apparent symptoms, you must understand that most of the time, they are trying to find a way to express their fear, anxiety or pain. Or, they want to get attention because they find that the little ailments generate sympathy and bring them an exclusive moment of solace from adults.

Identifying the cause of the discomfort

For situations where a health problem is not in question, here are some hints to help you identify the source of your child’s discomfort:

  • Has it been happening for a long time or only a few weeks?
  • Did something important happen in his life, whether at home, daycare or school (new teacher, moving, the arrival of a baby sister, divorce, death of a pet, etc.)?
  • How does your child react when you pay attention to them?
  • Does the boo-boo disappear temporarily or does the condition remain the same?
What to do?

If, in the light of what you found, you are reassured that your child has no physical discomfort, here are some practical tips for the little imaginary diseases tested by parents like you and me:

Adèle often has a headache… until we tell her ‘Okay then, let’s go to bed.’ And suddenly, the pain goes away! It happens more often when she hears us say that we have a headache. In the following days, Miss Theatre will inevitably tell us that she has the exact same pain as we did a few days before , says Nadine, mother of a 5-year-old girl.

Last year, the school called me a few times to ask me to go pick up my son, who had suddenly caught ‘the gastro disease’, as he called it. As we got closer to home, he would start to bounce around and feel better. But as soon as we went in the house, I still forced him to put his pajamas on and go to bed.”  Marie-Claude, mother of Zackary, 7-years-old.

In our home, we have a lot of boo-boos and what we call compassion ailments. If I’m putting a bandage on Victoria’s skinned knee, Annabelle will come to see me and show me her invisible boo-boo. A kiss on her imaginary boo-boo, a Dora sticker, and everything goes away!” Véronique, mother of Annabelle and Victoria, 2 1/2 years old.

When my daughter tells me at night, “Mommy, my ears hurt, I can barely hear anything”, I tell her softly “It's one more reason not to watch cartoons tonight. We’ll go to bed earlier and it will pass. Suddenly, she hears and understands very well and there’s no more earache!” Isabelle-Kinouk, mother of Tamara, 7-years-old.

Here are other tips that work well:
  • Redirect the child's attention to a game or an activity they love.
  • Give your child a glass of water, hot milk with cinnamon or lightly warmed infusion.
  • If you don’t have bandages with characters on them, draw a smiley face on a regular bandage. Guaranteed relief!
  • Play doctor with them with dolls or teddy bears, and try to make them talk about their patients’ boo-boos. It could help you discover many things about their own little temporary ailments.

In the end, what you need to understand is that no matter what the boo-boo is, your child is trying to tell you something. According to their age and level of understanding, you must try to meet this need by putting into words your child’s emotions, and let them know that there are other ways to draw your attention to what they are going through: "I think you miss me and you'd like me to spend more time taking care of you, am I right?" You'll see a shy smile appear on their face, which will certainly reassure you on their health status!

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