Explaining migraine to children: a parent’s guide

Understanding a migraine can be a difficult task – especially for children. It is important to explain it to them in a way that is comprehensible and doesn’t instill fear. This blog post aims to provide guidance for parents on how to introduce migraine to their children, both small and bigger ones.

Migraine can be scary and confusing for kids

Migraine can affect many aspects of your life including your children. They can have various thoughts or feelings as to what a migraine attack is and can experience worry, fear, anger or sadness. Imagine seeing your parent in pain and he/she leaves to be alone in a dark room for hours. That can be scary for a kid.

Therefore, we recommend that you educate your children on your disorder in a way that calms and alleviates their fears. Talk about what migraine is before you have an attack as it can be difficult finding the right words and energy for it while under an attack.

Age-appropriate understanding of a migraine

Depending on your child’s age, you can begin with explaining the basics of a migraine. That migraine is a type of headache but more intense and lasts longer. It can cause vomiting, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound and sometimes makes mom or dad need to rest for a while. However, it’s important to reassure them that:

  • there’s medicine to help alleviate the migraine
  • the attack is temporary
  • it’s not dangerous or contagious
  • you’ll feel better after some time and rest

Use the ‘monster’ analogy for smaller children

With smaller children, analogies can be helpful. You might explain that a migraine is like a big, mean monster that gives a really bad headache. But like all monsters in their storybooks, this one goes away too.

Here’s the description, I used when explaining migraine to my 3 year old son:

Imagine you’re having a great day playing and having fun when suddenly a mean monster shows up and starts pounding on your head. This monster is a migraine. It makes your head hurt a lot just like if someone was knocking inside your head. Sometimes, the monster also brings friends like light and sound, which suddenly feel too bright and too loud. Even strong smells can join in and make things worse.

When this mean monster is around, it can make you feel really sick like you want to lie down in a dark, quiet room until it goes away. You might even feel like you’re going to throw up and moving around can make it hurt more.

But here’s the good news – monsters always go away! There are ways to make the monster leave faster like resting in a quiet room, drinking water and taking medicine.

More migraine details for bigger children

With bigger children, they can process more information and details about your migraine. Besides explaining the basics of a migraine, you can describe how certain things called triggers can cause a migraine. These triggers is different for everyone – some get a migraine from too much sun while other get a migraine from certain foods. Trying to identify your triggers can feel like trying to solve a puzzle.

One tool to solve this puzzle is a migraine calendar. This is a special calendar where mom or dad writes down when they have a migraine, how long it lasts, what medicine they took and what they were doing or eating before it happened. It’s like a detective’s notebook, helping them to figure out what makes the migraine monster appear.

Listen to your children even if the truth hurts

It is understandable if your child has mixed emotions regarding your migraine. They can get angry or sad if you have to cancel plans or if you have to retreat to a quiet room to get some rest.  We recommend that you ask your children how your migraine makes them feel even if the truth hurts. As we know, children are truth tellers for better or worse and they might tell you something that is hard to hear. Try and view it as an opportunity to make them feel heard and validated in their emotions. Also remember to let them ask any questions they might have regarding your disorder.

Involve them if it makes sense

If your children are big enough to process more information and if it makes sense, you can explain your plan B in case of a migraine attack. Obviously plan B varies from family to family so talk about what your children can expect on migraine days, e.g. is dinner going to be different? Is someone else picking them up from school? Do they need to help out more than usual?

If they are curious about your migraine and want to help you manage the disorder better, they can help remind or assist you in filling out your migraine calendar. However, emphasize that is a voluntary task of caring for mom or dad and not a burden.

I hope that this blog post has been helpful in guiding you on how to explain migraine to your children, regardless of their age. Hopefully, explaining your disorder can provide them with a deeper understanding and empathy for you.