What a child should know about their parent’s migraine

Migraine can affect every aspect of a person’s life, including their children. Explaining migraine to your child is important. They can have a range of thoughts and emotions including fear, anger, sadness, and even worry that it is somehow their fault. It can be scary and difficult for a child to understand why a parent needs to be alone to rest in a dark, quiet room, so teach them about your disease in a way that calms, prevents, and alleviates their fears.

We spoke with Dr. Dawn Buse, clinical professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University and licensed psychologist, about how to talk with your child about migraine.

How to Explain Migraine to a Child

Talk about migraine before an attack happens

Migraine can be confusing and scary for kids. “Seeing a parent in pain and debilitated can cause a great deal of anxiety and worry for children,” says Dr. Buse. Because migraine attacks are debilitating and painful it may be difficult to explain migraine during an attack. It is best to talk about migraine when you are not in the midst of an attack and to use the opportunity to plan for any future attacks. “Explain what migraine is using age-appropriate language that your child can understand, reassure them that attacks are temporary and you will be OK, and brainstorm ways that they can help during any future attacks,” says Dr. Buse.

Plan the conversation in advance

Plan how you want to explain migraine to your child in a way that considers your child’s level of comprehension. Remember to let them ask questions. “You may be surprised what they do or do not know,” says Buse. “They may have a greater understanding than you realized, or they may have misconceptions that you can correct, such as the worry that migraine could kill you or cause permanent damage.”

Children should walk leave these conversations with an age-appropriate understanding of the basics: what migraine is, how it affects their parent, how it is treated and how this affects them. You may want to look up information about these and other topics on the American Migraine Foundation website in advance or look up the information together with older children. Explain to your child what you feel during an attack and the symptoms, and let them know that migraine isn’t contagious. You may also want to talk about different accommodation plans, such as childcare and dinner options, so that your child knows what to expect on migraine days. Routines and back-up plans make everyone feel more secure and comfortable, especially children.

Dr. Buse also advises that you ask your children how your migraine makes them feel, and listen with a non-judgmental ear. “Children may feel a mix of emotions that they may have a hard time sharing, such as fear, anger, resentment, or even guilt or shame that somehow they are to blame for your migraine.” Use this opportunity to let them express anything that they feel, validate that their feelings are real, and brainstorm ways to help manage negative feelings.

Make it age-appropriate

As their parent, you understand your child’s ability to comprehend topics, so tailor the conversation to fit their needs. “Even small children realize when mommy or daddy does not feel well, and that can be scary to them,” says Dr. Buse. “Talk openly with them about migraine starting at a young age to answer their questions, explain what to expect with a migraine attack, and let them know how they can help you.”

Older children may want to know more about migraine, including why and how attacks happen, and if they will happen to them. “You can explain to them that migraine is a neurological disease, meaning a condition that affects the brain and the nervous system,” Dr. Buse says. “Let them know that while attacks can be painful and debilitating, they are temporary and will resolve.” You can find more information to answer questions about migraine causes, genetics, and natural course on the American Migraine Foundation website. They may also be interested in types of migraine, triggers, progression and more. You can find this information and more in the American Migraine Foundation Resource Library.

Give them ways to help

It is natural to want to help people you care about, especially when you see them in pain. Watching a loved one in pain can bring on feelings of helplessness and anxiety. When you give your child ways to help you through a migraine attack, they feel empowered and less afraid of migraine. While it may be hard to think of tasks for them during a migraine attack, share a few ideas on a non-migraine day to help your child feel needed during your next attack. “You can take this opportunity to discuss what typically happens during an attack and brainstorm ways that they can help together,” says Dr. Buse. “For young children, it may be as simple as bringing you a cold washcloth to put on your forehead or playing quietly in another room while you rest. Older children may be able to help in other ways. Giving them something they can do to help you will make them feel better.”

Specific Situations

Every day can bring new challenges for those living with migraine, and children want to know why their parent needs quiet time or to cancel plans. Children are curious and have vivid imaginations, so we recommend explaining the situation and encouraging them to be involved in your care. Here are just some of the family life situations that may be affected by migraine and examples of how to explain them to children.

Why you have a babysitter

Your babysitter is here to hang out with you today because I’m having a migraine attack. I am going to rest in bed but I will be right here. You can help me by letting me borrow Mr. Teddy Bear to keep me company, and by using your inside voice because migraine makes my ears very sensitive. 

Why we can’t have a friend over today

I’m having a migraine attack, which makes my head hurt. It will make me feel better if you can help keep things quiet today. I think we should plan a different day to have your friend John over. I will talk to his mom and set up another day to play. For today, would you like to pick out a movie to watch while I lay down and rest? 

Why we can’t play outside

I’m having a migraine attack, which makes my head hurt and makes my eyes very sensitive to light. This means that being in the sun hurts. I also feel tired and my stomach does not feel well, but laying down would help me feel better. I’m going to lay down now. Let’s ask your dad/mom to take you outside to play, and when you come in, tell me all about it in a whisper voice. 

Your child is curious and worries about you. Keep them updated on your migraine both during and between attacks. “Keep the lines of communication open by encouraging age-appropriate conversations,” says Dr. Buse. “Answer their questions, normalize their fears and emotions, and during attacks reassure them that you’ll be feeling better and back to their normal mom or dad again soon.”

For more information on migraine and advocacy, visit our patient guides library.