Adolescence can be rocky under the best of circumstances. When a teenager has a chronic illness like Crohn’s disease, the bumps along the way can feel like mountains.
If you suspect your teen has Crohn’s disease – or they’ve been recently diagnosed – a strong support system and positive coping strategies can help your family navigate both the disease and adolescence.
Signs and symptoms of Crohn’s
Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease that causes inflammation of the digestive tract. Symptoms of Crohn’s may be nonspecific and/or mild at first. It’s not unusual for a child with Crohn’s to have the disease for more than a year before being diagnosed. Early signs of the disease to watch out for are delayed puberty and slow growth. This is due to inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, which interferes with the absorption of nutrients.
Common symptoms of Crohn’s disease include:
- Abdominal pain
- Weight loss
Other less common symptoms may include:
- Blood in the stool
- Skin rashes
- Inflammation of the skin, eyes and joints
- Nausea and vomiting
Speak with your child’s pediatrician if you believe your teen may have Crohn’s disease or another inflammatory bowel disease. A gastroenterologist will conduct a variety of tests to determine your child’s diagnosis.
Understanding Crohn’s impact on your teen
Crohn’s disease can take a physical and emotional toll at any age, but teens may be especially vulnerable to its complications. Your teen may feel self-conscious about being smaller and/or less physically developed than their peers. They may worry about bathroom access at school or other public places. When the disease is active, flares can be unpredictable and painful. Your teen may miss school and be concerned about falling behind academically. Your teen may also have to sit out during sports, socializing and other activities that enrich their lives and are developmentally and socially important at that age.
Given the nature of the disease, it’s not surprising that depression and anxiety are prevalent among teenagers with Crohn’s and other inflammatory bowel diseases.
However, even though Crohn’s is a chronic disease, its symptoms can be successfully managed with proper treatment and the disease can go into remission for months – or even years at a time – when your child can enjoy their life free of GI pain and inconvenience.
How to talk with your teen about Crohn’s
Adolescence is a period when children begin to pull away from their parents. This is an important step in becoming independent. Try to give your teen the space they need while also encouraging them to talk openly about their concerns so you can work together to address them.
Here are some ways to help your teen manage their health and well-being:
- Educate yourself about Crohn’s disease and encourage your teen to do the same. Your teenager is likely to feel more in control if they understand what is happening inside their body.
- Make sure your teen knows that they did not do anything to cause Crohn’s. While its exact cause is unknown, scientists believe genetics, the immune system and environmental factors play a role.
- Reassure your teen that they will have all the support they need – from professionals, family and friends – to successfully manage their symptoms.
- Encourage your teen to be an active member of their care team by asking questions and participating in decisions about their care.
- Talk with your teenager about which aspects of their disease concern them most; then discuss these concerns with your child’s healthcare team. They may have some ideas to address these concerns.
- Encourage your teen to be honest about how they feel – physically and emotionally. They may want to downplay their symptoms but ignoring them could make the disease worse and harder to treat.
- Reinforce the importance to your teen of sticking to their disease management plan, particularly when they are in remission and feel good.
- Help your teen find ways to manage stress, which can make symptoms worse. Yoga, meditation, art and music are all great ways to restore calm and boost your child’s spirit.
- Encourage your teen to be physically active. With their doctor’s approval, regular exercise is a great way to reduce stress and improve bone strength and overall well-being.
What to look for in a treatment program
Just as your teenager is a unique individual, so is their experience with Crohn’s disease. Look for a treatment program that will relieve your teen’s symptoms and prevent flares while also promoting growth and nutrition. The goal of treatment should be to achieve healing of the intestine and remission of the disease.
Your teen’s social and psychological well-being are critical to their overall health, so should be addressed in their care plan. Your child’s care should be managed by a multidisciplinary team of pediatric inflammatory bowel disease experts, including physicians, nurses, nutritionists, psychologists and social workers.
When to seek a second opinion
If your teen is newly diagnosed with Crohn’s disease or considering a new treatment, you may want to seek a second opinion. A second opinion can:
- Confirm your teen’s diagnosis
- Help you make a treatment decision
- Reassure you that you are on the right path with your teen’s current treatment
- Offer new treatment options to pursue
Crohn’s disease is a complex condition that requires ongoing management. Working as a family to stay on top of Crohn’s and ensuring they have the best care possible shows your teen that they – and not their disease – are in control of their overall health and well-being.