Migraine's Effect on Children's Behavior

A Study that Reveals a Link Between Headaches in Children and Behavior Problems

Do Migraines Affect Your Child's Behavior?. Philippe Lisaac Godong/Photononstop/Getty Images

It's hard to imagine your child lying in a dark room with a cold, wet cloth over her head, trying to nap away her migraine. Yet this situation is not as uncommon as you may think. Migraines occur in about 11 percent of children, according to a study involving over 1,700 school-children in Aberdeen, Scotland, and this number only increases during adolescence.

As a parent, it's important to understand the emotional impact of your child's migraines, in addition to her physical symptoms.

In fact, a recent study suggests that there may be a link between migraines and your child's emotional health and behavior.

Is There a Link Between Migraines in Children and Behavior?

A study of over 1,800 Brazilian children ages 5 to 11 found that children who suffer from headaches are more likely to also have behavioral issues such as problems with attention, socialization, depression, and anxiety.

In this study, mothers of the children completed a 14-question module, which assessed whether their child met the criteria for having headaches (either migraine or tension-type headache) according to the classification criteria of the second edition of the International Classification of Headache Disorder (ICHD-II).

Mothers also filled out a questionnaire called the Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL), which rates a child on various behavioral and emotional issues. Eight symptom scales were examined including:

• Withdrawn

Somatic complaints (physical or body complaints without medical explanation)

• Anxious/Depressed

• Social problems

• Thought problems

• Attention problems

• Rule-breaking behavior

• Aggressive behavior

Results showed that children with headache, both migraines and tension-type headaches, were more likely than their peers without headaches to have problems with attention, socialization, and anxiety/depression.

In addition, children with headaches had more somatic complaints and engaged in more internalizing behaviors or behaviors directed towards themselves than children without headaches. Overall, children with tension-type headaches were less severely impacted than their peers with migraines.

What Do These Results Mean?

Remember, a link between psychological or behavioral issues and headaches does not mean that one causes the other.

The big picture to take away from this study is that headaches in children can negatively impact their daily functioning in the home and at school. This may not come as a surprise for some parents, but for others, it could be that "aha moment" where you realize the impact your child's headaches are having on their childhood.

Bottom Line

If you suspect that your child is suffering from headaches, discuss your concerns with your pediatrician. It might even be a good idea to see a pediatric headache specialist or pediatric neurologist. The good news is that headache and migraine control can be achieved for your child, usually with a combination of both medication and behavioral treatments, like coping with triggers and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Remain proactive and informed with regards to your child's headache health, and how it impacts facets of their life, like their behavior and mood.


Abu-Arefeh, I.,, & Russell, G. (1994). Prevalence of headache and migraine in schoolchildren. British Medical Journal, 24;309(6957):765-9.

Arruda, M.A., & Bigal, M.E. (2012). Behavioral and emotional symptoms and primary headaches in children: a population-based study. Cephalalgia, 32(15):1093-100.

Barnes, N.P. (2011). Migraine headache in children. British Medical Journal Clinical Evidence, 2011:0318.

Lewis, D. (2009). Pediatric Migraine. Neurolologic Clinics, 27(2):481-501.

DISCLAIMER: This site is for informational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for personal care by a licensed physician. Please see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment of any concerning symptoms or medical condition.

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