Your Little Hypochondriac

How do you deal with a child who constantly convinces herself she's sick?
My daughter is nine years old and about to start fourth grade. Over the summer she began to worry about her health constantly. It all started when she scratched her eyeball. She was concerned that she had injured it seriously. I had her examined and no injury was found but she continued to worry about her eye for several weeks.

Now she is finding other ailments to worry about. If her neck hurts, she wonders if it could be broken. If she has a stomachache, she's convinced it's an ulcer. She even asks me to check her at night to make sure she is still breathing. I am in the healthcare profession and I'm sure she's heard me talk about illness occasionally. I find myself being very careful of what I say around her now. There haven't been any deaths or illnesses in our family.

I am constantly reassuring her of her health, but I find myself becoming annoyed at times by her persistent worry. I have hoped that getting back into the school routine will get her mind off these things. Do you think it will help?

Fears of illness or injury are more common in younger children (five- to seven-year-olds, typically) but can occur at any age. You are probably correct that your daughter has heard you talk about health-related issues, and you're probably also right that getting back into the school routine may help.

Nine-year-olds can be very dramatic, whether they are telling you about an injury or just about their day. When your daughter comes to you with a health concern, try not to show annoyance. Reassure her that you can tell she is worried, that you think she really is all right, and that because you are her mom and in the healthcare profession you will take care of her or you know the resources that can. If she senses that you are annoyed or that you don't want to hear from her, you risk making her unwilling to come to you about things in the future that you will want to know about.

Since you are a healthcare worker, she may also unconsciously see this as a way to get your attention. Try spending special time with her and giving her your full attention when she is not complaining about an injury or illness.

If these fears continue after school starts, you could ask your daughter's school counselor to work with her on this issue. If the problem persists, either the school counselor or your pediatrician could refer you to a therapist.

Barbara Potts has worked as an elementary school counselor for many years. She has a BA in psychology from Wake Forest University, and an M.Ed. in Guidance and Counseling from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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