Talking to Children About Their Endometriosis

According to modern medical wisdom, there’s a whole bunch of reasons why someone will get endometriosis.  Unfortunately, one of the factors seems to be genetics.  It can be inherited through either the paternal or maternal line, so don’t be too quick to blame your mother just because she’s got the requisite equipment, so to speak.

Anyway, if you’ve got it, there’s a good chance that any children or grandchildren of yours with the corresponding reproductive organs could develop it too.  Alternatively, you may be someone without the disease but have found out that your child has it.  Either way, your chat with them is going to have to be a little more comprehensive that the usual “talk”.

Now, I’m going to assume that this particular chat isn’t going to need to happen until your child starts to get their period, so this is mostly going to be aimed at 12-15 year-olds.  I know some children do get their periods younger than that, but even in those cases, it generally takes a few years for the symptoms to become obvious enough to start seeing a doctor about.  I think I got my period around 11 or 12, but I didn’t really become conscious of severe pain until several years later, at 14 or 15.  My experience isn’t universal, but it seems to be the age most young people become aware of it, so that’s the age that this post will be pitched at.

First and foremost, I think it is vital that young people understand how their own body works.  I also think they should get the anatomical breakdown of the bits they don’t have, because understanding the human body is useful and important.  Regardless, knowing their own internal workings will help them understand exactly what the disease is and how it is effecting them, save a lot of time in the doctor’s office, and make explanations from any treating specialists a lot more comprehensive.  Make sure your teenager knows the meaning of uterus, ovaries and Fallopian tubes and how they work together.  Make sure they understand the menstrual cycle, and not just the period.  Explain ovulation and how our hormone levels can fluctuate based on what stage of the cycle we are at.  Explain how the different stages of the cycle effect the body.  Most importantly, establish what is normal and what should be concerning.

Second, listen to them and believe their pain.  I’ve talked before about how we often aren’t believed.  Don’t be another person in a child’s life who assumes that they are exaggerating, hysterical or don’t know their own bodies.

Enquire.  If they say something is wrong, do a preliminary check.  If their periods are alarmingly heavy, ask about the frequency, whether they are having cramps, or if they are having bowel symptoms.  Encourage them to be open and honest with you or another adult they trust.

Get them medical attention, and fight for them if the doctors aren’t interested.  Young people tend to believe it when someone in authority tells them that they are wrong, and  I can say from bitter experience that it is pretty crushing and starts the cycle of having no confidence in your own assessment of your pain levels.  Talk them through their rights in the medical system and what to expect when visiting a specialist.

Give them autonomy over their own bodies.  The older they get, the more maturity they will be able to exercise in relation to their medical decisions.  Letting them have their opinions heard about particular options is important in helping them feel empowered.  I think it’s super risky to be forcing a teen into a particular course of treatment, particularly with a disease like this where everyone reacts so differently.  Give them the benefit of your experience and opinion, but my view would be that, if they are not happy with a proposed course, forcing them into it isn’t likely to be of much benefit, especially if they are an older teen.

Likewise, make sure they have a good relationship with their doctor.  I’ve changed had four specialists.  It’s important to find the one that is a good fit with you, particularly given that they are going to get up close and personal with your up-close-and-personals.  If they don’t have any confidence in their specialist, find them one that they can trust.  Ask what they want from a gynaecologist – they may want a particular age or gender, or to try someone recommended to them by someone else.

Encourage them to ask questions and do research.  Make sure that they have all possible information about their disease and whatever options they are pursuing, whether medical or surgical.  Link them up with a support group, particularly if you can find one of other young people.  Give them a place to share their experiences and chat with people their own age.  They might have questions that they don’t feel comfortable asking a parent or an adult doctor.

Be patient and understanding.  Of course you should encourage them to try their best and push through when they can.  It completely sucks, but it is the most unfortunate reality of endometriosis that we have to do stuff that it hurts to do.  However, if they say that they cannot do something because it is simply beyond their physical ability, don’t push them.  That does nothing but make us worse.  Let them rest and recover when they can.  I vividly remember being shamed out of sick bay during high school by unsympathetic nurses.  Don’t be that person.  We don’t like that person.

Facilitate them having as much of a normal life as possible.  Help them get to events with their friends and do extra-curricular stuff.  They might not be able to cope with the physical stresses of sporting classes, but perhaps they could do a painting or drama class.  If they can’t compete in the school athletics carnival, get them decked out in house colours so they can show their support.

Unfortunately, you may need to be a bit of a disciplinarian.  Teenagers make stupid decisions (actually, do we ever grow out of that?).  Even more than normal teens, young people with endometriosis need to safeguard their health.  That means a healthy diet, plenty of sleep, the right supplements, fresh air and sunshine, gentle exercise etc.  Many teenagers have the tendency to stay up super late and then sleep in for hours, things they can’t do during the school week and which messes with their circadian rhythms and whatnot.  I’m not saying they can never have a late night, but getting them to have a solid routine is really important because they have to go to school and school is full of germs which they are more likely than your average person to catch.  Likewise, if they would like to live off chips and pizza (wouldn’t we all) rather than a balanced diet, you may need to put a foot down.  Get them involved in making healthy meals that they will like, if you can.  My sister and I love making our own pizzas (although hers are mostly meat and cheese, so not a totally balanced diet there).

Ultimately, there’s no road map to parenting, and dealing with a child with a chronic illness will be even harder than raising a child in the pink of health.  How do you help your child with endo?  Any tips not included here?  Any difficult experiences you can share to help other parents avoid those situations?  Please let me know in the comments!

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