The Other Migraine Victims: Children

by Sondra McElhinney, EdD

Migraine pain disrupts family member's lives, behaviors and activities. When children are involved, the pain becomes even more disruptive.

The complexity of migraine pain and of migraine treatment is often difficult for an adult to comprehend, let alone a child. Understanding mama's or daddy's migraines is very difficult for the child. And the younger the child, the more difficult it is to explain. While still difficult, explaining to an older child or the teenager can be easier as they have a more extensive vocabulary for understanding migraine pain and treatment.

Migraine parents face many issues as they try to help their child understand about the pain. What migraineur has not overheard a child say "My mom has a headache" or "Why does daddy have a headache?"

What migraineur has not had a child who wants to "doctor" mama or daddy when they have a migraine? What migraineur has not missed a special event of the child What migraineur has not had a child who feels that they caused mama's or daddy's headache? How, then, does one deal with these issues? The migraineur must recognize that the key to helping their child is truthful communication. Every migraineur needs to determine what works best for them.

Migraine parents must plan how to help their child understand about headache pain. Developing a strategy not only helps the parent to clarify what needs to be said and how, but also when.


I. Help your child understand your headache pain. Talk to the child when you are not in the midst of a migraine episode. Make certain that the child is not in the midst of something that will detract him from the conversation. Talk to the child immediately after a migraine episode. It is still fresh in your mind and in your child's mind.

II. Describe your migraine condition. It is important to use the correct terminology. The child needs to know that migraines are more than "just a headache." With a younger child you will need to talk in terms of something they can relate to i.e., some injury they had when playing, etc.

Describe the difference between a migraine and a headache. To describe a headache you might ask the child to remember a injury he has had. To describe a migraine, try using a pan turned upside down on their head and have them bang on it with a spoon.

Describe in detail what happens to you when you have a migraine. The older the child the more you can you can go into detail i.e. nausea, sensitivity to light, pounding, etc. With the younger child, you may have to use such statements as "My head has an really bad owie." Or "My tummy is sick." Again with the younger child try to relate it to something that has happened to him.

III. Help your child know what you have to do to ease the pain. Describe what you need to do in order to ease the pain. Tell the older child about your medications and what changes in you they might expect to see i.e., sleeping. With theyounger child tell him you may go to sleep. Again, target your conversation in terms the younger child can understand i.e., relate the medications in terms he can understand and to a time when he had to take medicine. With the older child, discuss that you need quiet, a dark room, your medications, etc. With the smaller child you may have to tell the child, "mommy needs to take a nap."

Discuss what the child can do to help you ease the pain. Many times the child may want to "take care of" the sufferer. Help the child know, depending on his age, what he can do to help you. It is a good idea to see if the child can determine what he could do or you might make some suggestions i.e., get you a certain pillow, get you the ice pack, make sure the television is turned down low.

IV. Talk to the child about why you may not be able to attend all activities or events. You should be able to get a list of events or activities from the pre-school, church, school, ballet class, gymnastics. With this list, you know when to talk to the child. It is best to talk to the child prior to the event or activity but not so far in advance that the child will forget. Again the time factor should be when you are pain free as possible and the child is not distracted.

Let the child know you are aware the event/activity is scheduled and that you will do everything possible to avoid getting a migraine but that sometimes it just can't be helped. Tell your child that you will TRY to attend the event or TRY to participate. But you also need to tell the child, "Remember, sometimes mama (daddy) has a migraine and when that happens, I can't do things that I would like to do." Tell the child that for a couple days prior to the event you will get plenty of rest, be vigilant about taking your medications, be alert to the weather forecast for the day of the event. With any age child it is crucial that the parent does NOT promise the child that she/he will be at the event. Breaking promises to children has the potential of creating discipline problems now or in the future. Missing an event takes on a significance for the sufferer and the child. Let the child know that missing the event will make you sad.

Some things you can do to share the event/activity: Help the child learn the speech or select the costume or watch the child practice the dance, etc. If you do have to miss the event, as soon as possible have the child tell you about the experience. You might have someone take pictures and the two of you can look at them. Construct a scrapbook of the child's events and activities and have him help you put the programs, the flower, the pictures, the news article of the event in the scrapbook as he tells you about what you missed.

It is wise to arrange to have a special adult with whom the child is comfortable to standby. Asking the child to help select the adult gives them a sense that someone will be at the event or activity.

V. Help the child to not feel guilt. Many children take responsibility for your Headache pain. They feel they have done something to cause the migraine. The parent needs to be extra sensitive to detect if the child is feeling this burden. One way to help the child understand he is not responsible is to review with the child what the headaches are. Another way is to identify your triggers and discuss them with the child. When possible and you notice a trigger, tell your child so he will be aware of what has caused the migraine.

As terrible as the experience is, let the child participate to extent he wants to and to the extent you can tolerate. This includes discussions, getting something for you when the pain comes on, answering the questions honestly when the child asks, etc.

Essential to migraine management is how the child perceives what is happening to the sufferer. The child in the migraineur's life has the right to know what is happening with his parent. It is the parent's responsibility to help the child understand what is happening.

© Sondra McElhinney

Sondra McElhinney was the founder of HOPA ~ HeadOffPain Advocators, a nonprofit organization.