How to Deal with Sickness Anxiety in Your Child
Does your pre-teen spend a lot of time researching the Internet for information on diseases and symptoms, convinced they’re seriously ill?
Is your athletic teen suddenly hyper-focused on her asthma and refusing to participate in the sports she’s loved and played for years?
Does your child with a mild nut allergy worry excessively about coming into contact with traces of nuts causing withdrawal from friends and extended family members?
Your child could be experiencing sickness anxiety.
What Exactly is Sickness Anxiety?
Sickness anxiety is a disorder where there is a preoccupation with one or more somatic (bodily) symptoms and worry over having (or getting) a serious illness.
Kids and teens with sickness anxiety often misinterpret naturally occurring sensations in their body as a disease even when being assured by medical doctors that nothing is wrong with them.
Or they may actually have some type of chronic health condition (asthma, diabetes, peanut allergy, etc.) and fear it will get much worse unless they stay hyper-vigilant.
Either way, they live in constant worry.
How Do I Know if My Child Has Sickness Anxiety?
The most obvious sign of sickness anxiety is excessive “checking” behaviors in the form of frequent doctor visits, taking their temperature repeatedly, researching illnesses on the Internet, reassurance seeking, and persistent questioning of others to see if they are ill or not.
All these behaviors stem from your child’s desire to “know for certain” that they’re not sick or that their illness won’t get any worse.
Whether or not your child has sickness anxiety depends on the degree of worry and subsequent checking behaviors. A child with a chronic health condition may have some fears but through gathering information from various sources, learns the do’s and don’ts of living with their condition. As they learn to cope, their confidence grows, and they’re able to live their lives with relatively little problems.
To assess if your child has sickness anxiety, ask yourself these questions:
- Are my child’s checking behaviors more extreme and time consuming than would be expected given their illness or situation?
- And are these checking behaviors ruled by fear or fact finding?
- Is the worry excessive, ongoing, uncontrollable, and physically draining?
- Am I having to repeat the same information over and over again, but my child never feels better?
- Does the anxiety significantly and negatively impact the quality of life for my child and family as a whole?
Other Symptoms of Sickness Anxiety in Your Child
Catastrophic thinking is very common among children with sickness anxiety. They worry that their headache may be a brain tumor or imagine they have cancer if they feel pain in different parts of their body.
Your child may be irritable, tired, and complain of muscle pains, headaches or stomach aches. Their emotions often run the gamut from anxiety, worry, and sadness to anger, fear, frustration and guilt.
In addition to reassurance seeking and excessive body checking, children with sickness anxiety might also exhibit tantrums, disturbed sleep, and school refusal.
Unfortunately, most children with sickness anxiety are unable to recognize that their constant focus on symptoms or illness is unreasonable because they’re so anxious. In this case, anxiety wins out over logic unless you intervene.
What Can Parents do to Help their Child with Sickness Anxiety?
Here are some suggestions on how you might work through sickness anxiety with your child.
Validate but explore your child’s anxiety
Kids can often feel anxious about being anxious so validate their anxiety. Let them know it’s normal to feel a bit worried when they feel discomfort in their bodies. But don’t stop there. Let them know that anxiety doesn’t have to be the result of uncertainty. They can’t know for certain that they won’t ever get sick, but they can take really good care of their body to ensure they stay as healthy as possible. Ask your child for suggestions on how to keep their body healthy e.g. exercise, eat healthy foods, consume less sugar, more sleep, etc.
Help your child to shift their attention from their body and/or pain to something outside of themselves. Teach them to redirect their minds to something more present focused. Here is a previous article on mindfulness that you can read for specific ideas and suggestions on what to focus on.
Challenge some of their beliefs about worry
- Control. Are internet searches feeding your child’s need for control? Are they online all the time? Could they be doing something more productive with their time?
- Magical thinking. Does it really make sense that if they don’t worry about their health that something bad will happen? Challenge superstitious behavior.
- Catastrophizing – Ask, “What’s the worst thing that can happen, and how would you cope if that’s the case?”
- Misinterpretation of body sensations. Ask, “Have you ever had an unusual body sensation before that went away on it’s own or turned out to be nothing?” Try to loosen up some of those beliefs.
Help your child to reduce the behaviors that are reinforcing their anxiety
As a parent, you want to identify and reduce the behaviors that are reinforcing their anxiety. These behaviors include excessive internet searches, constantly checking and examining their bodies, reassurance seeking, avoidance behaviors such as not going to school or to friends’ homes.
It’s important to note that these behaviors might help reduce their anxiety in the present, but it only serves to keep the anxiety alive in their minds. It also sets your child up to have more anxiety in the future.
Try not to rescue your child. They need to learn how to sit in their own discomfort. As adults, we have to do it all the time and it’s an important life skill. Allow them to experience the anxiety and then let it decline naturally over time as opposed to getting in a loop where they’re doing something to maintain it.
The bottom line is that occasional worry about their body or health is normal for a child. Excessive and uncontrollable anxiety is not. Sickness anxiety left unaddressed can significantly and negatively impact your child’s quality of life.
Begin Online Therapy for Kids with Anxiety in Illinois
If your child has been struggling with sickness anxiety (also known as health anxiety), there is hope! Anxiety is highly treatable and online anxiety treatment at Briefly Counseling can help.
As an experienced and caring therapist, I love providing online counseling for anxiety. To start your child’s counseling journey, follow these simple steps:
- Click on the Schedule an Appointment
- Select a day and time in my online calendar
- Or learn about me, your caring online therapist
- Watch your child gain confidence and feel better
I provide all services via online therapy in Illinois. Whether you’re in Naperville, Chicago, Champaign, Rockford, Libertyville, or Crystal Lake, I can help you. Schedule your appointment or consultation today. I look forward to working with your child to quickly and effectively help them in activating their strengths, resources, and resilience, in order to live with confidence and hope.
Visit my website at www.BrieflyCounseling.com for more information or call 224-236-2296 to connect with me personally.