Ask An Expert / Depressive and Mood Disorders

My 8-year-old son always feels unwell and is very emotional. I am depressed, and our interactions are difficult. Please help.

Physical symptoms can indicate emotional issues

Janine Domingues, PhD
Janine Domingues, PhD

Clinical Psychologist, Anxiety Disorders Center

Child Mind Institute

My 8-year-old son is always unwell. In no particular order throughout the day he will be suffering ranging from headaches, tummy aches, pain on different parts of the body. He is very emotional and reactive. I myself have been diagnosed with depression decades ago, so our interactions become quite painful, and leave me feeling spent and guilty. Please help. I do not know how to help my child. He is a very unhappy boy, who told me that he knows I am tired of his complaints, and is feeling rejected at some level, I think.

I’m glad you are reaching out. Many parents find it difficult and often draining when they aren’t sure how to best help a child, especially if it seems like he is always struggling.

As you may know, physical symptoms are often connected to emotional difficulties including depression and anxiety. For example, headaches, stomach aches, tense muscles, difficulties with sleep, and sensitivity to pain can be connected to both anxiety and depression. Because your son has some of these symptoms and there is a family history of depression, my advice would be to pursue a comprehensive psychological assessment with a psychologist. Getting an assessment will help you understand what your son is experiencing emotionally and also provide guidance for effective treatment.

With the right diagnosis, your son can get treatment that helps him learn the connection between his thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and provide him with specific coping skills to manage his emotional reactivity and help him feel more in control of his experience. Another really important part of treatment will be for your son’s therapist to help you learn effective parenting strategies that support his ability to manage and cope with his symptoms. Part of this is managing your own distress as a parent. Modeling your ability to do this can help your son begin to learn how to tolerate distress and frustration on his own, which is an integral part of managing one’s emotions.

Lastly, I think it’s important to balance interactions with your son that can be “quite painful” with ones that are positive and fun. Spending at least 15 minutes a day doing something enjoyable together can help strengthen your relationship and help him to feel secure. This scheduled special time together will provide both of you with something to look forward to each day.