Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) In Children & Teenagers


By Jeffrey Lazarus, MD, FAAP on May 18, 2020
Author, Controlling Your Gut Feelings Blog



Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common pediatric functional gastrointestinal disorder that affects kids and teens and has a significant impact on their daily activities, school, and quality of life.

What is IBS?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a functional disorder, not a disease. Which means that the bowels are not working correctly and there is no damage to the bowels, like there would be if there was disease.

IBS is characterized by chronic abdominal pain and altered bowel habits. There may be vomiting, constipation, and/or diarrhea. IBS is a condition in which patients, including kids and teens, experience vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, and/or nausea. It is a particularly frustrating problem because there are no medications that have been shown to cure it.

All diagnostic tests are negative, including blood tests, ultrasound, and endoscopy. In addition, all radiographic studies are negative, including CT scans and x-ray studies such as upper GI series (barium swallow) and lower GI series (in which a barium enema is given). Additional tests may be ordered and these, too, will turn out to have normal results.

And, it is important to realize that even though the test results are negative, the pain is still quite real. This is why IBS is difficult to diagnose.

What are common digestive issues among kids and teens?

There are other Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders that children and teenagers are coping with. These too are functional disorders and not diseases. The most common are….

  • Functional Abdominal Pain (FAP)
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
  • Functional Dyspepsia (FD)
  • Abdominal Migraine (AM)
  • Cyclic Vomiting Syndrome (CVS)
  • Visceral Hypersensitivity

How common is IBS in children and teenagers?

“Can kids get IBS?” Yes

“Can a teenager have IBS?” Yes

Chronic abdominal pain is prevalent in middle and high school age children. An estimated 10 to 15 percent of school-age children have functional gastrointestinal disorders. Chronic abdominal pain in school age kids and teens is usually attributable to a functional disorder rather than organic disease.

A child complaining about their stomach hurting is something every parent hears, but if your child has constantly complained about stomach problems for a long period, they may have a serious digestive disorder.

What causes IBS in a child or teenager?

It is not known exactly what causes IBS, although there are various IBS treatments. There are numerous misconceptions about chronic abdominal pain caused by insufficient knowledge among health care professionals and this contributes to a lack of effective management.

Because the root of the problem has not been discovered it is difficult to prevent. It is only known that there are some factors that seem to play a role in triggering IBS symptoms.

IBS Triggers:

  • Stress
  • Eating
  • Hormones
  • GI infections
  • Menstrual period

For many people with IBS, the focus is on managing IBS triggers.

Does stress and anxiety cause IBS in kids?

Virtually all children and teenagers with IBS and Abdominal Functional Pain also have anxiety that contributes to the problem. A common question parents ask is, does anxiety cause IBS or does IBS cause anxiety? It can be either, but most commonly anxiety is already present.

If the focus is solely on treating the symptom, and not addressing the accompanying anxiety, patients are unlikely to experience relief. So, addressing the stress in the child’s life should be the focus to help reduce the IBS symptoms.

What are the symptoms of IBS in children?

“How do I know if my child has irritable bowel syndrome?”

Symptoms to look for are…

  • Abdominal pain is the most common. This can feel like simple discomfort to extreme cramping.
  • Nausea is also common and usually includes a loss of appetite.
  • Constipation.
  • Diarrhea and needing to have a bowel movement right away.
  • Bloating and feeling gaseous.

The key to these symptoms is if they are “chronic”. Has your child had these symptoms consistently for a long while?

Irritable Bowel Syndrome diagnosis is reached when a physical exam does not show any cause for the child’s symptoms. Often patients see their primary care clinician, who will order tests, which typically come back normal. And, the clinician prescribes pills that do not work. Then the child may be taken to a gastroenterologist or gastroenterology nurse practitioner, and more tests are run and more medicines are prescribed, and those don’t work, either.

Plus, this causes reinforcement of the problem being a physical one that is treatable with medicines. And, when those don’t work, it causes the clinician and the family to run more tests and try more medicines, and it becomes an exercise in futility as there are simply no drugs that cure IBS. After that, families might try other homeopathic treatments for which there is no scientific evidence. But parents are desperate, and they love their children and would do ANYTHING to help them.

All of this takes time and leads to further frustration, and concern that the clinicians are missing something medical. With this in mind, even more tests might be done. And, it can become a vicious circle.

What helps IBS in kids?

As it happens, medication is not the answer to IBS. Studies have shown that the best treatments for IBS are medical hypnosis and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Through extensive review of the medical literature, and 20 years of experience teaching medical hypnosis, and 10 years of teaching CBT, Jeffrey Lazarus, MD, FAAP has found that hypnosis is terrific at controlling the symptoms, and, although it can be helpful to control the anxiety, CBT has been shown to be the best treatment for patients with anxiety.

The program developed by Dr. Jeffrey Lazarus, MD, FAAP, Controlling Your Gut Feelings®, includes both of these strategies. It is a home video program that can be completed in only 4 weeks, in the privacy of your own home, and your child will learn techniques to control not only the symptom, but also the anxiety that virtually all of these patients have. Plus, it is so empowering!