It's understandable that kids would freak out about the weird stuff that bodies do. After all, they haven't had a body all that long, and what seems routine to us (like coughing up mucus during a cold or feeling inexplicable pain upon hitting your funny bone) can be disorienting or frightening to them. But when your child's worries about their body — and the relative health of that body — tip into anxious or panicked territory, you may have trouble on your hands. Or, as it were, you may have a kid hypochondriac in your home.
Hypochondria is a term many associate with eye-roll-inducing behavior — the high-strung friend convinced her sore neck is meningitis, for example. But it is a legitimate mental health disorder, referred to in healthcare circles as health anxiety, hypochondriasis, or illness anxiety disorder, and it accounts for millions of dollars in healthcare costs each year. The advent of the internet has kicked the problem into high gear, resulting in so-called cyberchondria, also known as the state in which one Googles their symptoms until they decide they're at death's door.
Roughly 200,000 people are diagnosed with illness anxiety disorder annually, and according to the Cleveland Clinic, it can affect people of all ages. While we tend not to hear much about it, a portion of those diagnosed are children. If you're concerned that your own child might bear all the hypochondria earmarks, here are a few questions to ask yourself.
1. Do they often check for signs something is wrong or tell you something is?
What does this disorder look like in kids? Much like it does in adults. Hypochondria is characterized by an obsessive preoccupation with identifying potential symptoms of illness. Does your child frequently ask to have their temperature taken? Do they talk excessively about their health — reporting a new symptom every day, for example, or frequently asking to stay home from school due to illness — or seem preoccupied with health topics in general? Do they often ask to see their doctor or be taken to the hospital? As the mom of a three ½-year-old boy wrote on Reddit's r/Toddlers subreddit, "If he so much as coughs or sniffles, 'I'm sick! I have to go to the doctor right now!!' If he bumps his head or stubs his toe, 'I'm hurt! I have a big owie! I have to go to the hostiple (hospital in toddler-speak)!'"
Another potentially useful sign: Does your child fixate on others' health as it relates to their own — not wanting to be around sick people, for example, or zeroing in on a relative or caregiver's illness and growing concerned that they too will have it? And on that note…
2. Have they recently gone through something scary?
That Reddit mom had a theory about why her little boy was freaking out about going to the hostiple: "This all started a few weeks ago after he tried to dart away in a parking lot when a car was heading toward us. I may have overreacted, but I said, ‘Do you want to get hurt? Do you want to get hit by a car and have to go to the hospital?’… Now, ever since, every little bump or sniffle warrants a doctor visit in his opinion."
Similarly, a loved one's recent illness, health scare, or death can awaken health anxiety in kids, who may not yet have the emotional wherewithal to manage their feelings about what's happening — or the cognitive ability to even process what's occurred. And of course, what better time to develop health anxiety than during a global pandemic, which, one 2020 study showed, has predictably ratcheted up health anxiety in children.
3. Do they overreact to minor symptoms?
A hypochondriac child might have a small spot of eczema on their knee and become concerned that they've developed a serious skin allergy. They may feel a hunger pang and exclaim that they're about to barf. In other words, with a child suffering from health anxiety, you'll frequently note a disproportionate response to any symptom (or "symptoms") they identify.
4. Do they tend to be anxious in general?
It stands to reason that kids who already struggle with worry would be more susceptible to health anxiety; their health is just one more thing on their list of stuff to fret over. If your child tends to be the worrying kind, take a word of advice from another Reddit parent.
When a mom asked in r/Parenting what she should do about her perpetually worried 10-year-old's anxiety-fueled stomachaches, a fellow Redditor offered this answer: "I was this child, and am this as an adult. Here's what I wish my parents had done: Taken it seriously. Living with this is NOT FUN. It hurts, inside and out, and affects your whole life. Please get your child to a [behavioral] cognitive therapist to learn strategies. Have them take yoga and learn breathing exercises, teach him that what he is feeling is OK, and that he can navigate [it]." Hear, hear.
5. Are you health-anxious?
A 2017 study conducted in Denmark noted only a mild correlation between health anxiety in mothers and their children reporting health anxiety as well. Meaning, the good news is that parents with illness anxiety disorder don't necessarily pass the disorder to their kids. However, the researchers did find that the health-anxious mothers they studied tended to project their health anxieties onto their kids, interpreting the kids' illnesses as more severe than they were and taking them to the doctor more often than was likely necessary.
So, although the team of researchers "did not find that the children of mothers with severe health anxiety themselves reported more physical symptoms compared to children in the control groups," they did identify "the possibility that the upbringing by a parent with negative illness perceptions and health anxiety in the long run could [teach] the child that minor bodily changes (i.e., feeling unwell) are unusual and need extra attention."
6. Do they have a genuine health concern?
Brace for a no-duh moment: If a child does indeed have a chronic health condition, like a food allergy, asthma, or diabetes, it's understandable that the worries they have about that condition could bleed into other areas of their health. In addition, if your child is frequently complaining of stomachaches, headaches, or body aches, watch out for this unfortunate catch-22: kids with health worries can genuinely fall victim to these ailments, because all of them are symptoms of anxiety.
7. Has this behavior been going on for a while?
Again, it's perfectly normal for kids to be fascinated by health stuff. In fact, what parent hasn't applied a dozen adhesive bandages to imagined boo-boos once or twice? It's when a kid's behavior is consistent, persistent, and interruptive to daily life (does it prevent your child from going to school or daycare? Are they afraid to go outside?) that it's time to speak to your child's pediatrician. Many treatment options are available to kids who experience health anxiety — like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which research has shown is highly effective in treating hypochondria, or antidepressant or antianxiety medications.
More than likely, says the Children's Center for Psychiatry, Psychology, and Related Services, your child's health anxiety can be addressed more simply. Help ease your child through this tough time by gently and nonjudgmentally reassuring them as often as needed that their supposed symptoms are normal and that their doctor says they're perfectly healthy. Redirect their attention from today's catastrophic knee-scrape to something unrelated, like a game to play together or an upcoming event they're excited about.
The point is, validate their feelings — but don't enable them to linger on those fears.