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My son, 2 years old, has recently started some behavior that is concerning me.

This morning he was upset (this isn't terribly uncommon for him in the morning, when both my wife and I are getting ready for work). In between tears, and demands for milk and to be picked up, he told me he needed his temperature taken.

I took his temperature (we use a non-invasive temporal thermometer), and it was perfectly normal. He didn't even wait to see my reaction, though. As soon as I ran it across his forehead, he walked away.

He's also been complaining about stomach aches which go away 30 seconds later:

"My belly hurts."

"Where?"

"Here." (points to a spot on his belly)

"Do you have to poop?"

"No."

"Does it still hurt?"

"No."

These two things by themselves probably wouldn't concern me, but there's a family history that factors into this which is why I'm worried.

My wife's family is, in my opinion, somewhat obsessed about health issues.

Illness and injury are perpetual topics. Any indication of something out of the ordinary seems to result in my wife evaluating symptoms to determine if she should worry. If he seems unusually cranky, she takes his temperature. If he seems "out of sorts" (defined as any period lasting more than 5 minutes where he isn't smiling and wanting to play), she takes his temperature and asks if we should take him to the doctor.

When he was 6 months old, he was incorrectly diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis. Our specialist warned us to watch for "bulky, greasy stools" as an indication that he might be having pancreatic enzyme issues. This led to her obsessively monitoring his bowel movements, and asking for constant evaluations of "does this poop look normal?" I think that worry was understandable at the time (we tried to get a better description of what to look for, but the best we could get was that it may "explode out the top of the diaper").

However, we verified over a year ago that he doesn't actually have CF, and our specialist agreed that he was merely a carrier. He's had no symptoms, yet every time I change a diaper, she asks "did he poop? How did it look?".

Granted, I tend towards the opposite extreme when it comes to medical issues. I don't go to a doctor unless I'm really sick, and feel that I can't get better without a prescription. I try to be less reluctant to go to a doctor with my son, but I still feel that a cold, for example, is not a reason to go to the doctor. Yet I fear that my wife's worries about his health push me even further into the "its not something to worry about" spectrum.

So, my main concern is that my wife's worry about health issues is not something I want my son to pick up. My wife's attitude towards health issues is a somewhat watered-down version of my mother-in-law's, and my two sister-in-laws, so I feel that this behavior does seem to be learned.

Is it normal for a 2-year-old to ask for his temperature to be taken when he's upset, or complain about phantom pains?

How can I make sure that he doesn't grow up to worry too much (or too little) about his health?

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Not really an answer, but In each of my Preschool classes (three years), there was one child that was very "body focused." I can't speak to the reasons for this, but while I wouldn't call it, "normal," I wouldn't label it as outside the norm either. Have you tried having a discussion about your concerns with your wife (from a problem solving, "I'm concerned about our son" standpoint, rather than an accusatory one that is?) –  balanced mama Feb 6 '13 at 15:42
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2 Answers

Normally, I tend to tell dads to listen to their wife's instinct because my mommy instinct has never steered me wrong.

However....

When you're dealing with borderline hypochondria, it's a delicate balancing act of responding when your child is legitimately ill and not over-reacting to every little cut/scrape/cold/imagined infection. I know. My mom and grandmother are mild hypochondriacs and I work extremely hard to only go to the doctor when I feel like I need to go, and I only take my kids to the doctor if I feel like they need to go. This means that I actively have to monitor myself when my children are sick to avoid over-concern and rushing them to the doctor for every tiny fever. I agree with you that this is a bit of a learned behavior.

I don't know that I would say that it's normal for a two-year-old to want his/her temperature taken, but I can tell you that my 2 1/2 year old daughter has developed a new obsession with the thermometer we use to take her temperature. She doesn't actually want her temp taken--we still take it rectally, but if we were using a temporal thermometer she probably would. And she has "phantom boo-boos" all the time, more or less because she wants a bandaid (or she'll insist that a minor boo-boo is much worse than it really is so she can get a bandaid).

At this age, there's probably no harm in humoring him to an extent. If running a thermometer across his head is all he needs to "feel better" then why not? What he's really saying is, "I want some attention, even if it's just for a minute, I want your attention focused on me 100%".

If you don't want to encourage the behavior, then you might try getting him up a few minutes earlier so you and he (or he and your wife) can have some special one-on-one time. I do this with my 5-year-old who is just notoriously difficult to get up and running in the morning. I'll go sit on his bed and wake him up sometimes and ask if I can have a hug and we'll spend 5 minutes or so hugging and talking about our day.

As for ensuring he doesn't grow up too focused (or not focused enough) on his health, this is going to have to be a joint-effort between you and your wife. I don't think your intent is to minimize your wife's health concerns, but I completely see your side of the coin, too. Next time she asks about your son's poop, you might just in passing say, "You know, he's been given a clean bill of health for a year now. We don't really need to obsess over his poop anymore". It sounds like your wife needs to talk about it, and this might open up the door for her to do that. She was scared and nothing can strike fear into the heart of a mommy like worrying that her child may have an incurable disease. And she might not even realize how much she's been obsessing over it.

Our rule around here is: If there's no obvious sign of illness (general crankiness does NOT count as an obvious sign of illness), then we don't worry. Fever, diarrhea, vomiting, severe cough, rashes--these are the things we look for and generally one of those signs will accompany an illness that may require a visit to the doctor.

I really rely on my husband to help keep me in check about this kind of thing, and the best thing he can do is offer me his honest opinion which we can use to make a plan--especially if our opinions on the child's illness is particularly divergent. However, my husband also knows that if I say I feel like we need to take one of our kids to the doctor/emergency room, then he should give it serious thought. Mommy's intuition has probably saved both my kid's lives--once when my son was an infant and severely dehydrated after a nasty stomach illness, and once when my daughter was six months old, had RSV, and wound up being hospitalized for a few days.

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Dollars to donuts he's picking up this concern from his mother. Not an exact analogy, but our 4 yr old daughter was exhibiting negative talk ("I had a bad day. I had bad dreams. I'm not happy.") and trying to get out of going to school. AFter talking with her and her teachers, and determining the problem wasn't school, we had an epiphany: her father is a pessimist and likes to complain and grumble about his work, life, whatever. He and I agreed that we'd drop the negative talk around her ("my day was horrible. This week sucks. I'm so sick of my job.") and the turn-around, instead of taking months, took literally DAYS.

I understand your wife's concerns; my son was a preemie with apnea and it took a while before I quit freaking out over every little sniffle and fever. Having a child is having your heart walk around outside your body, and the thought of them being sick or in danger can be freaky. For your child's sake, though, my recommendation is that she learn to tone down the focus on poor health and the absolute certainty that the next bad disease is just around the corner. It's not good for her, and it's not good for you, and it's not good for your child.

Your big chore is going to be talking to your wife about this without coming across as accusatory or implying that she's messing up her child. To tackle our issue, I talked with my husband as it being a "we" issue, even though it's really more 70-30 him (I'm the optimist in the crew and rarely focus on the negative; years and years of therapy helped me get there). And when I pointed out that it was for our kids, and not us, he was immediately on board and didn't just turn over a new stone, he picked up that boulder and chucked it.

If she's amenable, some time spent with a therapist might help her to learn how to redirect her anxiety and maybe calm herself on these issues, so she's not constantly verbalizing them.

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I agree 100%. Perhaps taking some time to re-focus her energy on how she can help her family be healthier might help calm some of her fears as well. –  Meg Coates Feb 6 '13 at 20:03
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