Saturday 23 February 2019

Parents can be 'too nice' to their children when they're ill, neurologist warns

Psychosomatic conditions like chronic pain, seizures or even paralysis are not only triggered by trauma but also can too much love and attention

Dr Suzanna O’Sullivan said that children could come to depend too heavily on feelings of reassurance when they are unwell
Dr Suzanna O’Sullivan said that children could come to depend too heavily on feelings of reassurance when they are unwell

Sarah Knapton

Parents should not be overly indulgent with their children when they are ill as it sets up a pattern which can lead to psychosomatic conditions in later life, a neurologist has warned.

Dr Suzanna O’Sullivan, of the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery at University College London, (check) said that children could come to depend too heavily on feelings of reassurance when they are unwell and inadvertently make themselves sick in later life in an attempt to recreate those sensations of comfort.

Dr O’Sullivan, a specialist in psychosomatic conditions, said that many people were left with seizures, pain or paralysed because of mental traumas in their past. For example, around a third of psychosomatic seizures are caused by childhood sexual abuse.

But the illnesses can also be triggered by too much love and attention, she warned.

"I think it is a pattern set up in childhood,” she told The Hay Festival. “You can be too nice to your children when they are sick.

“Giving them a lot of attention when they are sick can set up a pattern when they are older. They can think that is how to get help and reassurance.

“So when their job gets a bit shaky, or one of their children is in trouble, or they are worried about raising a mortgage it can manifest as physical symptoms. And they can't escape.”

Dr O’Sullivan cited the example of one patient who she referred to as ‘Pauline’ who had developed a range of symptoms when her parents split up. A psychiatrist later discovered that her father had returned to the family home each time she was ill, setting up a pattern for years of pain.

Dr O’Sullivan said it was clear that patients were not inventing their symptoms or malingering, but that serious conditions were being driven by emotional trauma. And, often accepting that the cause was not physical could stop symptoms like seizures, headaches or joint pain immediately.

Previously the condition was labelled by doctors as ‘hysteria’ but Dr O’Sullivan said it was a very real problem and should not be dismissed as ‘all in the head.’

“Most people who have these symptoms worry that people will think they are faking it. But it is a sub-conscious illness. Examples of people faking it up are few and far between.

“In some of its more extreme manifestations it can cause severe psychological distress and can lead to blindness, deafness, muscle spasms. The symptoms can be reproduced psychosomatically have no limit.

“They can happen to anyone and they don’t get better. And a lot of people will experience them in a mild-form. If you accept they are psychological many of them melt away.”

She also says people shouldn't pay too much attention to side-effects leaflets or they are likely to start experiencing the conditions psychosomatically.

“Don’t read the side-effects labels on medication too closely,” she added. “All these symptoms come from something already existing in your mind and your imagination. So if you read the side-effects, you’re probably more likely to experience some of them.”

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