Your child has been complaining of a stomachache. Or a headache. Or ear pain, chest pain, nausea: take your pick. Problem is, the doctor can’t find anything wrong. He’s checked out your adolescent, and everything looks all clear—physically, that is.
Which leaves you puzzled. It doesn’t make sense that your teen is exaggerating their symptoms. And the pain doesn’t seem to pass, no matter how much you wish it would. You really want to figure out what the source of the pain is.
The Mind/Body Connection
If this scenario sounds familiar, your teen may have a psychosomatic illness. Psychosomatic illnesses are physical symptoms caused, or exacerbated, by an emotional or mental issue rather than a physical pathology. Ever heard of the mind/body connection? It’s valid. When we’re in emotional distress, our body shows it, no matter how much we try to repress the pain we feel. In fact, psychosomatic symptoms can often develop when we try to push down deep, uncomfortable feelings and/or ignore serious emotional problems.
This is true not only for teens, but for adults. In fact, it’s true for everyone. In Dr. John Sarno’s revolutionary book, Healing Back Pain (which first popularized the psychosomatic and mind/body phenomenon) he described how thousands of adults with back pain, and other types of chronic pain, were actually suffering from unaddressed emotional tension rather than an actual physical injury. He theorized that our minds create pain when we are repressing “unacceptable” emotions like rage, anxiety, and fear. Our physical pain, writes Sarno, is simply a way for our mind to distract us from the internal angst we’re experiencing. Dr. Sarno proved his theory by analyzing hundreds of x-rays and MRIs from patients complaining of chronic pain—but results showing no evidence of physical injury.
Emotional stress seems to be the number-one culprit of psychosomatic illnesses in adolescents, too. Researchers at Harvard Children’s Hospital in Boston found that up to 50% of children will “complain about medically unexplained symptoms”. Such psychosomatic illnesses, the authors found, are often associated with depression and anxiety (Ibeziako P & Bujoreanu S).
Psychosomatic symptoms could also be a result of:
- Family conflict or problems
- School problems (like schoolwork or bullying)
- Peer pressure
- Chronic disease or disability in parents
- Moving to a new place
- Parents’ mental health issues and/or poor coping abilities.
When do you know if it’s a medical issue or a psychosomatic issue?
While the only way to really determine whether your teen’s issues are medical or psychosomatic is to visit your pediatrician, past research from the University of Michigan shows that many adolescents with psychosomatic disorders have symptoms that are:
- Of varying intensity
Additionally, these adolescents:
- Complain about multiple symptoms at the same time
- Seem to have been in good health before the issue came up
- Usually delay or procrastinate seeking medical care, and/or
- Seem to show a lack of concern about the symptoms.
Treatment for Psychosomatic Illness in Adolescents
So, what do you do now?
First, if you haven’t already taken your adolescent to their primary-care physician or pediatrician, do so: that’s the first step. The doctor should conduct a full check-up and exam and see if there’s a real medical concern. If they don’t find anything, you might want to consider a second opinion. Your next step should be to take your teen to a mental health professional for a clinical assessment to determine if there’s an alternative cause for their symptoms.
Mental Health Treatment for Psychosomatic Symptoms
If the mental health professional finds that your teen, in fact, is suffering from emotional stress, your next step is mental health treatment. The type of treatment depends on your teen’s personal circumstances. If your teen is suffering from clinical depression, anxiety, trauma (PTSD), borderline personality disorder, substance abuse, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), prodromal psychosis, or any other type of mental health condition, they’ll need some form of talk therapy, such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy or Cognitive Behavior Therapy, and possibly medication if necessary. You might also want to consider a mental health treatment center for teens, such as an intensive outpatient program (IOP), partial hospitalization program (PHP), or residential treatment center (RTC).
Even if the source of emotional stress is less acute, or not a diagnosable mental health condition, CBT and DBT are still essential to help your teen process and resolve what’s going on. For example, your teen could be struggling with friends, bullying, cyberbullying, school, academic issues, codependency, or other issues. If you, as a parent, are struggling with mental health issues, consider seeking treatment for yourself as well.
Learning About the Mind/Body Relationship
When it comes to psychosomatic illness, many teens find their physical pain disappears after they learn that the source of their pain is actually emotional stress. In many cases, this knowledge alojne helps. In fact, in the aforementioned Harvard study, the authors assert that treatment for psychosomatic illness should start with “educating the adolescent and his or her parents on the understanding of the mind-body relationship.”
Psychoeducation can be provided by a mental health professional during outpatient treatment, or during group therapy at a teen treatment center. Many RTCs, PHPs, and IOPs offer psychoeducation on the mind/body connection.
Also, you can educate your teen on the mind/body connection yourself, informally. You can offer your adolescent books and articles to read on the subject (any one of Sarno’s books are recommended), or suggest that they Google “mind/body connection” or “psychosomatic illness.” However, professional mental health treatment is essential so your teen can uncover the root of their emotional issues and work through them in a healthy way.