Tips for Dealing With Your Child's IBS

One of the most challenging experiences for parents is to see their child in pain. If your child has been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or functional abdominal pain (FAP), you may be experiencing feelings of powerlessness, frustration, and confusion.

Being on the front lines, you know that IBS in children is no minor matter. Research has shown that kids with IBS experience low quality of life, miss a lot of school, and have to attend numerous medical appointments. The impact of IBS in one child can affect the entire family dynamic. Luckily, for many children, the disorder will improve with time and minor interventions. Unfortunately, for others, digestive difficulties may persist into adulthood.

A woman carrying and hugging her son on a rural road
Cultura / Erin Lester / Getty Images

It has often been said that children don't come with instruction manuals. This is even more true when it comes to manuals for helping parents deal with the challenges of a functional gastrointestinal disorder like IBS. Here you will be provided with some guidelines to follow as you work with your child and your child's healthcare provider to help ease your child's distress.

Educate Yourself

In order to be of optimal help to your child, you need to have a good understanding of what is causing the problem. IBS is unlike other health problems in that there are no clear-cut diagnostic tests or laboratory findings that pinpoint what is going wrong. Although a direct cause may not be identified, some people who have IBS experience visceral hypersensitivity, meaning that they are more sensitive to the experience of pain from inner organs, and they may have abnormal colon motility, meaning there is a problem with the speed of the workings of their intestines.

There are several theories as to what may be behind these problems: 

Build a Care Team

Adult IBS patients who feel positive about their relationship with their healthcare provider have a better treatment outcome. It is thus likely that you will feel more confident about how to handle your child's IBS if you're working with practitioners that you trust and respect. Be sure that your healthcare providers take the time to listen to your concerns and, most importantly, take them seriously.

If you feel that a healthcare provider is dismissing or minimizing your child's distress, this is not the right practitioner for your child. If a healthcare provider's advice does not sit well with you, discuss your concerns with the medical professional, or get a second opinion. No one knows your child as well as you do.

Be sure to set reasonable expectations: IBS is not a health problem that your healthcare provider can quickly cure. Instead, look for gradual symptom improvement and an increased ability for your child to engage in his or her regular activities.

Teach Your Child About Digestion

It may help your child to cope better with what's happening to their body if they have a better understanding of the process of digestion. For small children, simple pictures are best, while older children and teenagers can benefit from a more detailed discussion.

Helping your child to know how their body is supposed to be working will help them to cooperate with, and benefit from, treatments designed to ease their symptoms.

Teach Good Bowel Habits

Young children seem to love to avoid things, whether it's taking a bath, brushing their teeth, or taking time out to have a bowel movement. Older children may be reluctant to use public restrooms or not wake up early enough in the morning to make the time for a toilet trip. Now that you have explained to them the process of digestion, engage them in helping their bodies to try to find their way back to normalcy.

Children whose primary symptom is constipation should be taught to "tune in" to indications that their body is ready for a bowel movement. They may also benefit from bowel retraining, which is a way to try to tap into the body's natural rhythms to establish regularity.

Children who are experiencing bouts of urgent diarrhea can be taught relaxation skills to help reduce the anxiety that may be strengthening colon contractions and thus decrease the sense of urgency. 

Validate Their Pain

Just because nothing shows up on a CAT scan doesn't mean that the pain your child is experiencing isn't real. Any attempt to minimize his or her pain will probably backfire on you, as it will increase your child's anxiety that you're not paying attention to the fact that something is wrong. The more anxious a person is, the more the pain sensation is enhanced.

When your child is in pain, offer support and comfort. Encourage them to use self-soothing strategies. For small children, it may mean cuddling up with a favorite stuffed animal or blanket. Older children may find that listening to soothing music or the distraction of interacting with their friends on social media helps them to get through a bout of abdominal pain.

You can enhance your child's sense of self-efficacy and possibly reduce pain-enhancing anxiety by asking them to brainstorm self-soothing ideas. For small children, a wonderful technique is to talk directly to the favorite stuffed animal. For example, ask, "Does Teddy have any ideas as to what will help you feel better?" Older children can, of course, be asked directly for their ideas as to what they think might help.

Learn How Diet Affects IBS Symptoms

Although it seems to defy logic, research has not shown much of an impact of dietary changes on IBS symptoms in children. This seems to be particularly true when it comes to the symptom of stomach pain. With that in mind, there are some general guidelines to keep in mind:

Use a food diary to look for possible lactose intolerance or fructose malabsorption problems.

Have your child avoid the following:

  • Artificial sweeteners that end in "-ol"
  • Caffeine
  • Fatty foods
  • Gassy foods

If your child's symptom picture includes bouts of diarrhea, encourage them to eat small meals throughout the day to avoid strengthening intestinal cramps. If your child is more likely to be dealing with constipation, encourage them to eat a large meal—particularly in the morning—to help initiate a bowel movement.

If necessary, increase your child's fiber intake, but do it very slowly. To figure out how many grams of fiber a day your child should be consuming, simply add five to their age. Fiber helps to both bulk up the stool (good for diarrhea) and to soften the stool (good for constipation).

However, many sources of fiber can cause gas and bloating, which may worsen your child's symptoms. Slowly increasing the fiber content of your child's diet may help their body to adjust without excess gassiness.

You may also want to talk to your healthcare provider about putting your child on a low-FODMAP diet. This diet involves restricting certain carbohydrates, known collectively as FODMAPs, for a few weeks before re-introducing them into your child's diet to assess for tolerance. This diet is best when done under the supervision of a dietitian.

Before making any major changes to your child's diet, be sure to discuss your plans with your child's healthcare provider, who is in a position to best know how any changes will affect your child's health.

Look Into Mind-Body Treatments

Research has shown that some forms of psychotherapy can have a positive effect on IBS symptoms. If your child is experiencing episodes of abdominal pain, they may benefit from hypnotherapy. If your child experiences a lot of anxiety, and you think that this anxiety is making their symptoms worse, they might benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Work With School Officials

One of the most frustrating and disconcerting aspects of IBS in kids is when it interferes with their ability to attend school. It is typical to worry that the child is exaggerating his or her symptoms to avoid school.

It can also be worrisome to think about the impact that missing so much school will have on your child's overall education. Listen to your child and your parental instincts to determine whether or not they are able to get to school.

For many children, symptoms are worse in the morning, so sometimes a late start may be what is needed. In an extreme case, your child may need home instruction.

It is essential to try to work with the school to make sure that your child's educational needs are being met. Your child has some rights regarding getting an education in spite of having a medical condition such as IBS. Talk to your school officials about the possibility of writing up a 504 plan, which outlines what accommodations your child might need to succeed in school in light of their stomach issues.

Don't Overlook Your Other Children

A health problem doesn't just affect the person who has the diagnosis. The lives of siblings are also impacted: The "sick" child is perceived as getting more attention, family plans are canceled, certain foods can't be served, etc. Feelings of resentment may develop in healthy siblings. In some cases, the healthy sibling may start to "act out" in an effort to shift the center of attention.

Although we all know how busy life can be, it's important to try to find "alone time" with your other children. When you have them alone, encourage them to verbalize their feelings about their brother or sister's IBS problem. Let them know that any negative feelings that they have are normal and understandable.

It's amazing how much better people feel when their feelings are validated.

Many children have a hard time putting their feelings into words. For small children, you can enlist the help of their favorite stuffed animal. Often a child can tell you that "Teddy hates my brother," but they know that they probably shouldn't say that themselves!

For older children, their feelings may be validated simply by your putting them into words, e.g., "You may be upset about what is happening with your sister. You may be resentful of the attention that she is getting or bummed when we have to cancel our family plans. These feelings are normal and understandable."

Children of all ages can benefit from being asked for their ideas about solutions, e.g., "What ideas do you have for family fun that we can do close to home?" or "Do you have any thoughts as to what might make your brother/sister feel better?" Again, for young children, including their security object in the conversation can help to generate ideas.

Let the whole family participate.

Use whatever works. The point is to make the healthy siblings feel that they're still an important part of the family. And remember, all of us are so much better at cooperating with a plan when we've helped to come up with it!

Find Balance

Having a sick child is very, very stressful. Make sure that you're not neglecting your own needs as you struggle to help your child deal with her IBS. Find ways to "re-charge your batteries" whenever possible. Remember that the better care you take of yourself, the more you will have to give to others. 

With every dark cloud, there is a silver lining. Perhaps the silver lining of the dark cloud that is your child's IBS is that it forces your family to slow down and spend time together—a rare luxury in our very busy culture.

Find low-stress activities that your whole family can enjoy, such as reading books together, watching movies, or working on an old-fashioned jigsaw puzzle. Modern technology also offers a ton of ways to keep children entertained at home. Look for video games or apps that the whole family can enjoy together.

Let IBS offer an opportunity for all family members to know that they are loved, and to make sure that everyone's needs are nurtured.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Barbara Bolen, PhD
Barbara Bolen, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and health coach. She has written multiple books focused on living with irritable bowel syndrome.