What Your Anxious Child’s Stomach Ache Could Really Mean


stomachIf your child complains of a stomach ache on the first day of school or during another major event, there’s a good chance it’s not something he or she ate. It’s more likely to be something your child is feeling, namely that thing called anxiety.

Anxiety can express itself in various ways, and abdominal pain is one parents – and physicians – see again and again.

“It’s very prevalent,” Pittsburg physician and head of Medical Coping Clinic Dr. Eva Szigethy told CBSNews. “[I]t’s one of the most common reasons that children and adolescents end up in their pediatrician’s office. It’s one of the most common reasons kids are missing school.”

Between 8 and 25 percent of all children suffer from ongoing stomach pain that comes with no discernible medical explanation, a condition docs call “functional abdominal pain.”

The term functional kicks in because the digestive system is functioning as it should, without any blockage, infection or disease. But that doesn’t mean the pain isn’t real even if the cause stems from somewhere in your child’s head.

The Gut as ‘the Second Brain’

The stomach often reflects emotions, so much so that Columbia Professor Dr. Michael Gershon coined a phrase for the stomach as the “second brain.” The stomach is home to the enteric nervous system, which holds hundreds of millions of nerve cells, CBSNews explains.

You probably have experienced this “second brain” in action when you’re nervous and get the flittering feeling of butterflies in your stomach. Your child may be experiencing it when he or she is anxious and the belly is peppered with pain. Even if the nervousness or anxiety is all in your head, it can create a real sensation or pain in your abdominal area.

The Pain-Anxiety Cycle

If stomach aches and anxiety are regular factors in your child’s life, they may fall into the “chicken-or-the-egg” syndrome trying to figure out which came first. Regardless of which did come first, they can also start to fuel each other to create a vicious, ongoing cycle.

  1. Anxiety leads to
  2. Stomach pain which leads
  3. Greater anxiety which leads to
  4. Greater stomach pain which creates
  5. Greater anxiety which makes the
  6. Stomach hurt even more (and so on)

Possible Long-Term Consequences

Even if the stomach ache goes away after a bit of talk and relaxation techniques, recurring, unexplained stomach aches in children may lead to depression or anxiety down the road.

A study published in Pediatrics discovered that more than half, or 51 percent of people surveyed who experienced stomach pains as children ended up with some type of anxiety disorder sometime in their lives.

The study compared two sets of 8 to 17-year-old children from the same school, one group of 332 who suffered from unexplained stomach pain and another group of 147 who reported no abdominal issues. Researchers then contacted those same individuals as adults in their 20s to survey the frequency of depression and anxiety disorders.

Even if the abdominal pain eventually waned, study author Lynn Walker explained the anxiety disorders could persist. Of the children who did not experience abdominal issues as children, only 20 percent developed anxiety issues sometime in their lives.

On the depression side, 40 percent of those surveyed who suffered abdominal pain as children ended up with depression sometime in their lives. Of those who did not experience abdominal issues as children, only 16 percent later suffered from depression.

What Parents Can Do 

Taking your child’s complaint seriously is a must, as both anxiety and medical issues can lead to pain in the abdominal area. Repeated or especially severe complaints should merit a trip to the doctor, advises Dr. Jon LaPook, professor of medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.

LaPook has firsthand experience of the dangerous consequences that can erupt if the child’s pain is dismissed from one of his own childhood incidents. Back in third grade, LaPook was complaining of a stomach ache but went to school anyway. He ended up collapsing halfway through the day and needing emergency surgery to take out his appendix.

Other causes behind stomach aches can include certain foods, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and, of course, certain stressful situations that create an ache induced by anxiety. Treatment for any of the stomach aches requires digging out the root cause of the pain and then working to correct the root cause.

If your child gets the OK from the doctor that no physical issues are to blame, experts agree the next move is sending your child to school, out to play or to engage in his or her lineup of regular scheduled activities.

“When children stay home from school and other activities, they get behind in schoolwork and peer relationships, which increases stress, which in turn increases their suffering,” according to study author Lynn Walker.

Tips for Anxiety Relief 

A number of short-term remedies may help bring immediate relief to your child, and more involved methods can help provide longer-term relief.

Short-term Anxiety Busters

Breathe! Breathing techniques are quick, easy-to-learn and can help your child de-stress on the spot. Diaphragmatic breathing, commonly called “belly breathing,” involves taking long, full breaths that work the diaphragm and make the belly rise and fall. Check out more tips in our post on Teaching Your Anxious Child to Calm Themselves with Their Breath.

Additional ways to bring near instant relief can be taking a quick break to listen to soothing music or giving your child your complete attention so he or she can cry, cringe, scream or otherwise share how they are feeling and why.

Longer-term Anxiety Helpers 

Longer-term solutions include ensuring the basic are being met with success. These include ensuring your child eats a healthy diet, gets adequate sleep, engages in plenty of exercise and takes time to unwind. Mindfulness and meditatioare two more ongoing, anxiety-busting strategies you and your child can incorporate into your daily routines. And if the stomach aches become too overwhelming, don’t be afraid to address the underlying issues with the help of a therapist.


Photo Credit: threefatcats via Compfight cc

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Kimberly Stewart October 26, 2017 at 1:43 pm

We have been through a lot when she was two I lost a baby at 7 months a stillbirth. I had already lost two children. My anxiety was bad by the time I had her and lost her sister. Solir freaks out at school her stomach hurts all the time. I’m making a apt for dr today. She doesn’t like her teacher witch is a bummer and calls me from school. Now they told her she can’t call me. Now she really doesn’t want to go. We are talking about not doing what if’s and how safe she is. She’s also dislocated so school is hard. Any suggestions????


Erica December 12, 2017 at 12:24 pm

I am having similar issues with my 10 year old son. He has,never really been a fan of school but always went without issue until we all went through hurricane Irma. We spent 9 days together as a family, no work, school, power, water etc and when it was time to go back to school everything changed and I don’t know why. Half way there he starts to get worked up and his stomach starts to ache, by the time we arrive he is full blown bawling and bent over with stomach pain, it’s absolutely awful and I don’t know what to do. We let him take his phone to school so he can sneak away to the bathroom to text or call us i if he needs to but now the teachers and guidance counselors are calling me worried about him because he seems mopey and withdrawn all day long not just after I drop him off. I’m not sure what changed in those 9 days but it did,. Once I pick him up he is completely fine with no issues. The doctor has assured me this is a phase and it will pass but I can’t sit by and watch him suffer and do nothing, should I try therapy or are there any other options you may know of, thanks.


Tonya January 23, 2018 at 4:03 pm

I have the same issue with my 12 year old daughter. The anxiety started before the stomach pains. She was put on Zoloft and is starting therapy in two weeks. Kids have way too much stress in school these days. My daughter loved school, now is begging me to home school her and is in terrible pain in school and fine at home. We have gone through every xray, scan, blood work and stool sample. All negative. Very frustrating just be patient.


Chris September 10, 2018 at 11:00 am

My son also will be 12 on sept 12, and started jr high . Stress is rough on kids these days I agree .
My son is so very smart, but I really think his anxiety levels are causing his grades to fall.
He begs me to help him.
I so really want to help my son . I can’t stand seeing him like this on school days only..
I’m at a loss but haven’t given up on him. He’s had blood work stool samples etc also….


paul February 2, 2018 at 6:59 pm


Our situation is identical and I am just wondering where you stand today? We are in the process of figuring out our next move with our 12 year old son and I would like to hear anything you may have worked on or found out to date. Hope everything is getting better.



Sonia April 10, 2018 at 4:49 pm

We have experienced the same with our 13 yr old daughter and just after the hurricane, it all started. Waking up with stomach aches every morning and feeling socially left out with others in school. Always feeling like we are playing catch up with school work and never ahead of the game. Missed 21 days of school in 5 months. I cannot wait for summer to come. After a colonoscopy and endoscopy, she was diagnosed with IBS which is triggered by anxiety. She was put on a 504 plan at school to help reduce the pressure of testing and completing homework (which is a lot in her school). Trying out counselors to help cope with the stresses of being a young teen and just starting seeing a psychiatrist to try anti-anxiety meds which can take 2-3 weeks to see improvements. The one she is on right now, isn’t working so we have to try another one. It’s been a very frustrating 8 months without relief. We have bad days and lesser bad days. I feel like a failed parent not being able to help my daughter overcome whatever the stresses or worries she’s feeling. It’s affecting our whole family life balance. I have thought of moving to a new area and changing schools, to start fresh. Just don’t know what else to do and feel very helpless. Any success stories out there with families going through this? Please share your stories!


KP September 28, 2018 at 2:31 pm

First of all, I hope the children are doing better. I was one of the children whose stomach hurt every morning when I was growing up K-12. When I was college age, it wasn’t as bad and it was the most physically healthy time I’ve ever had, those 5 years or so. Now I’m a 43 year old woman, who has IBS and my stomach hurts anytime something stresses me out, good or bad (mostly bad), especially if I HAVE to be somewhere else that isn’t home. I’ve had some special stressors, autowreck that left me disabled, chronic pain, etc., but I never realized until recently that the phrase “I don’t have the stomach for that!” was probably said in a literal sense by someone years ago like me! My stomach hurts if I’m extremely upset OR feeling very pressured, to the point that it sets off my IBS and I usually carry Pepto if I have to go somewhere. I recently took a Genesight test and I would recommend one to anyone suffering anxiety, depression, trauma, pain, add, etc because not everyone can take mental wellness medications and get relief. Until you get one and see which enzymes you have high amounts of, what your gene interactions are and variants, your prescribed and the patient are at a disadvantage. You could do way more harm than good! Some examples of when my stomach hurts as an adult – if I have to go anywhere early, even if it were something fun, if I travel, if I have a doctor’s appointment, when I eat at a restaurant or drive through or home if it has too much grease sometimes (completely unpredictable as to why except certain restaurants I have to avoid so this maybe a combination of a sensitivity and stress. I am not allergic to any major foods as I’ve been tested, I do not have Celiac’s, and I don’t have a gallbladder or stomach cancer or esophogas problems or intestinal problems, (which is IBS in a nutshell).) when someone in my family is having surgery, when planning, – you get the idea. How do I cope? As someone who has been there, done that as a child, I am so sorry that your child has this. IF there is nothing else wrong with your child ( like food allergy or disease (including childhood cancer, celiac,) which I would BE SURE to rule out first before doing anything else! – then here is just a bit of what I would suggest. What helped me – choosing what I wanted to eat for breakfast. Sometimes plain bread was best – No milk or juice! Taking Pepto or something else that helps my stomach calm down. Mind tricks (not Jedi! Lol ). I do this as an adult. I tell myself ” You don’t have to go. You could just not go if you really wanted to.” Remembering to breathe DEEPLY; as it sounds like many of your kids will or are having panic attacks. For me, focusing on Jesus helps when I’m extremely stressed. (I’m a Christian.) Distraction can help. It’s a method my mother used often and is a part of DBT therapy. Getting extra sleep and cutting out any extras that overextended my abilities. And lastly, a prescribed sedative when all else fails. Hope this helps!


Emma December 12, 2017 at 11:16 pm

I have been having the same experiences with my 11 year old daughter. She has always been sensitive and takes a while to settle when changing classes in her old school, but now she has gone to high school she is complaining of feeling sick, stomach cramps and is crying most mornings before school. She is fine when picked up from school at the end of the day and during the evening and then it all starts again the next morn. We have been up the school several times and been to doctors to rule out anything medical that could be causing herctummy pain. I have made a worry box which she can write things in and we can go through her worries, she wrote a few things in and we talked about them and I thought it was working but morning came and tummy pain and crying again. The doctors have done every blood test and all normal, school have now referred her to counselling to see if that helps! But I agree it is the worst thing seeing our once bubbly happy little girl crying and complaining every day.. breaks my heart!


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kelley February 17, 2018 at 5:14 pm

I am so glad to know that I am not alone in this battle. My daughter was having stomach pains, throwing up as soon as she said her stomach hurt and headaches. She was diagnosed at age 4(she is now 10) with a nervous stomach after doing several test. Her doctor put her on a liquid medicine called Periactin. It helps ease her pain but I believe it is psychological more than anything. I have three daughters and she is the middle child. She definitely has what is called the middle child syndrome.
She is also scared of everything and worries about everything. She is a picky eater so she doesn’t eat a good healthy diet. Because of the poor diet she has constipation problems that causes her stomach to hurt. Her doctor has recommended a therapist so that is our next step. My mother said that my brother was diagnosed with a nervous stomach when he was little and from the way she described her experience with him it was worse than what I am going through with mine. I found out it also runs on my husbands side of the family but you wouldn’t think something like this could be hereditary but maybe it is,


kelley February 17, 2018 at 5:24 pm

I forgot to add this. Kindergarten through third grade she was babied by her teachers. She gets to fourth grade and the babying is over. We didn’t know the two teachers and there were no friends in her class and the work load is awful. Her backpack is heavier than my 16 year olds. This school year has been a nightmare. At the beginning we missed school for a week and we have had several meetings with the principal, vice principal and teachers. Things are better now that school is almost over but her stomach still hurts to the point where she doesn’t want to go to school.


Chris September 10, 2018 at 11:09 am

Same here I feel like for my sons last three years of school he was babied.
I can’t stand not being able to help him, then he says I don’t care . I won’t help etc etc , but what he doesn’t understand is I’m constantly thinking about things like is he being bullied , he blames the teachers for his grades, he does not ever take blame for anything.. his dad is hardly home with work . It’s worse when dad is not home for sure …. he’s gifted and he isn’t on meds, but I can remember him always not wanting to go to school.
I mean could he be worried about me all day. I’ve sat here day in and day out wondering.he doesn’t understand that I’m not having a good day knowing I’ve had to make him go to school:/


Maria March 26, 2018 at 3:51 pm

My son has the same issues the Dr told me that he has abdominal migraine,


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