Updated: Apr 24
Your child seems quieter than usual and not interested in their lunch. After lunch they curl up on the sofa and do not want to play with their siblings. They seem tearful and say they have a sore tummy.
What’s happening? Your child seems quieter than usual and not interested in their lunch. After lunch they curl up on the sofa and do not want to play with their siblings. They seem tearful and say they have a sore tummy. What’s going on inside? Children do get common childhood illnesses, such as coughs and colds, rashes and tummy upsets, and these illnesses will continue throughout COVID-19. Common childhood infections give symptoms that often make children feel unwell. Feeling unwell is meant to be unpleasant as it is designed to tell us that something is not right in our body and needs attention. For some children, emotional distress can reveal itself as recurring physical symptoms, which is the body's way of talking when a child or teen cannot express what is troubling them. These children may not know about or understand bodily feelings of distress or be able to label and put into words to explain what is troubling them. Some children may have learnt or believe that the family are more likely to pay attention to a display of physical symptom rather than expressing difficult emotions. For any child, these feeling can be strange, frightening and difficult for them to understand, express and manage, making situations stressful. When children find it hard to talk about what has been stressful for them, their strong emotions can trigger the stress response system (fight and flight), making them feel even more uncomfortable. This heightened state of alarm can affect their judgement and decision making and you may notice your child’s behaviour changes. They may become withdrawn, lethargic or act younger than their age, become a fussy eater or refuse food, get into arguments or fights, be tearful and clingy or start to complain that they feel unwell. When a child feels unwell and becomes distressed, they will naturally look to a ‘trusted other’ for support and comfort. Children need adults to appear calm, caring and controlled as their approach teaches the children how to manage their own uncomfortable feelings. Adults can use our social engagement system to help calm children’s stress response (fight and flight). For more information about the stress response and social engagement system see 'Our Emotions, Brain and Stress'.
HOW TO EMOTION COACH
Step 1: Recogise your child's feelings and empathise with them Notice what emotions might be lying beneath the behaviour of your child. Behaviours: Your child may just appear ‘not their usual self’; they may be irritable, clingy, easily distressed, or quiet, sleepy and withdrawn. Emotions: Your child may be scared of the unusual physical feeling and pain such as a sore throat or tummy or earache. They may be upset and angry that they are feeling unwell and unable to enjoy playing like they usually do. Step 2: Validate and label the emotion your child is feeling What you might do and say: ‘I’m wondering if you’re feeling unwell right now as you’re holding your tummy and are all curled up like a ball, you look sad and a bit scared’. ‘It’s horrid, and I know it’s scary when your tummy hurts so … It makes you feel sad and upset. …I don’t like it when I have a sore tummy… in fact I think nobody likes it when they feel like you do at the moment’.
Step 3: Set limits (if necessary) What you might do and say when your child is calmer: ‘Although it is horrid when we feel ill, you’ll feel better soon. There are things we can do right now, to make you feel more comfortable and help you start to get better’. Step 4: Problem Solve What you might do and say when your child is calmer and able to think through things with you: • Focus on the practical support needs of safety, comfort and rest and hydration Help your child understand what is going on in their body right now, and why they feel the way they do. This will help the child feel more in control and calmer. Websites can offer practical advice to parents on how to manage common childhood illness (use reputable sites recommended by the Government or NHS). ‘You know, at the moment, your tummy is saying it is not feeling well and needs some attention from us. I think you maybe ate something last night that has made you feel sick and now your tummy sore. You and your tummy need to rest and get better together’. • Illness of any kind reduces the body’s energy stores. The body needs time and rest to recover Depending upon the child’s age, work out coping strategies to help them take plenty of rest and relaxation yet feel socially connected and not alone. This will help them feel calmer/less upset: ‘When you’re not feeling well you have to be kind to your tummy and let it rest, that way you can help it get better’.
‘I cannot sit here all the time but Quack-Quack (favourite comforter/toy) is going to be with you. I’m going to be just downstairs working, and I’m going to leave my study door open so I can hear you and I’ll come straight back up when I have finished my work emails’. • Help your child to figure out how they can help themselves and be aware/monitor their progress This helps build their resilience through increasing their knowledge and understanding of common childhood illnesses. ‘Shall we make you a chart so you can put a tick every time you take a few sips of water’.
‘How does your tummy feel now you have had some medicine?’
‘Think about what activity you would like to do when you’ve had a sleep and I will have finished my work’. Read more about Emotion Coaching