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Barbara Bradley Bolen, Ph.D.

Chronic Illness in Kids & Teens: IBS

By February 16, 2012

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Dealing with a chronic illness at any age is quite challenging. No one likes to be in pain or have to deal with invasive tests and miss out on nice opportunities - all things are go hand-in-hand with a chronic health problem. Chronic health problems seem especially heart-breaking when the person who is ill is a child. Amber Tresca, About.com Guide to Inflammatory Bowel Disease is hosting a blog carnival, urging bloggers to address the specific challenges that kids and teens have to face when dealing with a chronic illness (Blog Carnival: Chronic Illness in Children and Teens).

No one likes to see a child in pain. Yet, parents of IBS sufferers have to do just that on a regular basis. A parent's worries may be soothed somewhat when the cause of the pain is known and being addressed. The fact that IBS is a functional gastrointestinal disorder means that parents are not given that little bit of comfort. In addition to trying to soothe their child, they are left with worries as to whether or not a correct diagnosis has been made. Are the doctors missing something? Should they be putting their child through more tests?

Having IBS as a teenager presents its own unique sets of challenges. All most teenagers want to be is "normal." But that is hard to do when your colon is not normal. It can be excruciatingly humiliating to deal with intestinal symptoms when all you want to be doing is hanging out with your friends. Adolescence is also a time when one is looking for love and to be loved. At a time when dating is oh-so-new, IBS can make a kid feel like no one will ever want to be with them.

Another area that IBS makes quite complicated is that of diet. As a parent of teenage boys, I know first-hand that what kids like to eat and what they should be eating are vastly different things. Come to my house at lunchtime and you will see me eating lentil-kale soup, while my boys munch on Pizza Rolls. The IBS intestine is not so forgiving of junk food. Kids with IBS cannot eat what their friends are eating without paying a price later. This issue also puts extra stress on the parent-child relationship - it can become just one more thing to fight about.

One of the things that kids and teens both have to deal with, that adult IBS sufferers are generally spared of, is dealing with teasing. Growing up in an Irish-American home, I learned quickly (for survival reasons) that if an adult is teasing you that means they like you. Teasing from kids is a whole different story. Kids will tease to be mean. And, some kids are relentless. Teasing is no small matter - it is part of bullying - and the effects of being bullied can be serious and life-long. Kids may not be so sensitive if they are teased about having asthma or diabetes, but being teased about "bathroom issues" can be torturous.

School is another area that can be a nightmare for kids and teens with IBS. By necessity, schools tend to be very structured, rigid institutions. This can clash directly with an unpredictable digestive system, causing much anguish for the child with IBS. Kids do have some rights though, and a 504 Plan can be drawn up that outlines any necessary modifications that a student may need due to their IBS.

If you know or love a kid with IBS, make sure to let them know how much you love and value them. Reassure them that although they are stuck with IBS that it does not have to define them. Tell them that one good thing that will come out of their experience with IBS is that they will learn which people really matter and which people are not worth their time and effort. Let them know how much you admire the strength and resilience that they display in dealing with the challenges of a life with IBS. Give them a hug!

This blog is being written as part of Amber Tresca's blog carnival:

More from Dr. Bolen, your IBS Guide:

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February 21, 2012 at 6:24 pm
(1) Cay says:

I have a 20 year old on with chronic IBS. He’s had it bad since his Junior year of high school and it will forever mark his life.

April 13, 2012 at 4:39 pm
(2) James says:

As a 17 year old who has suffered from ibs for a year and a half now (though it feels much longer), I’d say this article gives a pretty good outline of what it’s like to go through this horrible illness as a young adult.

I think it is important to understand the condition and remain positive that you can get through it/ manage your symptoms effectively- whether it’s through diet/lifestyle changes, therapies (e.g. behavioural), medicine, supplements etc.

Athough there isn’t currently a cure for ibs, there are cases where people have gotten rid of it by finding something that works for them. Sometimes it can just be a question of finding what’s causing it such as bacteria, parasite, food intolerance etc and dealing with that, so try not to feel as though it’s a life sentence- that’s how i try and look at it anyway.

I know i’m not an expert but i hope this helps a bit!

April 16, 2012 at 10:46 am
(3) Dr. Bolen says:

Thanks to both of you for taking the time to comment. Hopefully Cay will read James’ suggestions and maintain hope that IBS will not be a life-long nightmare.

May 10, 2012 at 9:10 pm
(4) Hannah says:

I am a 14 year old who has suffered with abdominal pain, bloating, loss of appetite and weight, and alternating constipation and diarrhea for over a year. I have recently had to switch doctors as when I presented this issue to my physician, it was dismissed as chronic constipation and later ignored when I had to come into the clinic multiple times when I explained the problem was not getting better.

With my new recent doctor change, I was seen and told I mostly likely had IBS but needed to see a specialist . I’m now in the process of trying to find a gastroenterologist that covers my insurance (not very easy).

I can completely relate to this article. My health has gotten in the way of school and my life, and I have been out of school and at home for many days. I’m finding it harder to explain to friends when they ask if I’m okay. My school is prodding me about my absences and possible loss of credit, though I have made up my work, have good grades, and bring in doctor’s notes. I don’t want to eat lunches served at school as the food just leaves me in more pain. Though I have not been bullied directly, I have an anxious feeling that I am being talked about behind my back, and it upsets me that I constantly have to tell friends ‘Sorry I wasn’t feeling well’ or ‘I was at the doctor. Sure, I guess I’m okay’.

I was once a very happy and outgoing person, but this past month I have been having a harder time being positive because I’m not sure how I can best cope with IBS. My parent-child relationship with my mother isn’t going well and we argue about these issues on a daily basis (if not several times a day). My stress level has risen and has worsened my mood and my symptoms.

I guess I can say that I’m not really in the best shape with handling IBS, however this article has given me a little hope. I can see that I’m not alone in my struggle, and that this is something I can get through.

May 16, 2012 at 11:25 am
(5) Dr. Bolen says:

Hi Hannah, Thanks for sharing your story, although I am sorry to hear about how hard it has been for you. I hope you use that little bit of hope to keep trying different things until you get the disorder under better control. Good luck!

November 27, 2013 at 1:50 pm
(6) Niamh says:

Hey, I’m 15 and have IBS, I’ve had it since i was born. I found it tough to live with it but I’ve grown to know Ill just have to deal with it as its something I’ve been born with.
I’ve gotten to the age where I’m curious to know what IBS was all about and the in depth details about it. I just thought id put it out and if any other teens with IBS see this just to know its not the end of the world that you will get through it once you keep positive, eat good fibre food and exercise. I know stress and depression can be triggered when having IBS and I’ve experienced great depression but got through it! Just felt like I’d share my story with you!

November 30, 2013 at 9:38 am
(7) Dr. Bolen says:

Hi Niamh, Thanks for taking the time to share your story and your positive outlook. Good luck and be well!

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