How to help your teenager aged 16-18 with migraine

For parents and carers of teenagers with migraine who are aged 16-18 years

Talking to your teenager about their migraine

Understanding migraine

Talking to your teenager about their migraine and how it makes them feel is the first step to helping and supporting them with their condition.

There is a real lack of understanding of migraine in society and children and young people are rarely taught about it at school, so your teenager may be feeling confused or worried about their condition.

Explaining what migraine is will help them understand their condition better

Common symptoms of migraine include head pain, feeling sick, being sick, and tiredness. Your teenager may also experience aura which can involve changes to sight (e.g. seeing bright spots, zigzag lines or losing vision) or speech, dizziness and weakness.

Aura can be disorientating and frightening at times, but you can reassure your teenager that it is a normal part of a migraine attack and should last no more than an hour.

If they are worried or upset about their migraine, remind them that although migraine attacks can feel horrible, they are not life-threatening and usually go away after a few hours or a few days.

Fitting in

They may also feel different from their friends who do not have migraine which may upset them, particularly if they have special requirements like they need to wear a sunhat during PE lessons or take lots of time off school.

Many teens find migraine difficult as it can cause them to miss out on parties and social occasions.

Alcohol

They may also be drinking alcohol for the first time. Alcohol is a common migraine trigger, as are loud sounds and bright lights, which can be anxiety-inducing for teens going to parties or being pressured to drink by their friends.

Talking to them about peer pressure and the importance of pacing themselves if they have migraine can help.

Remind them how common it is

You could also talk to them about how common migraine is – one in seven people have migraine so lots of other people at their school or college are likely to have it.

If they have a friend with another long-term health condition like asthma or diabetes, you could also tell them how the two are similar – they are both long-term conditions with no cure that need to be managed, and they sometimes make the person unwell.

Being supportive

It is also vital to remind them that it is not their fault that they have migraine. We do not know exactly why people have migraine, but it is often genetic, so you could explain that it is something passed down through family and nobody’s fault.

Emphasising the seriousness of migraine

The most important thing when talking with your teenager about their migraine is to not be dismissive. Migraine is often trivialised and many people assume it is nothing more than a headache, when in reality it can be very debilitating.

Listen to what they say about how they are feeling and do not downplay their symptoms or dismiss how they feel. A migraine attack is a whole body experience and can be very painful. It is unlikely they are exaggerating their symptoms or making them up.

“I point out the hereditary element so she doesn’t think it’s something she brought on herself.”

How one parent helps their child understand their migraine

Getting help at school

Your teenager may need certain adjustments at school to help them manage their migraine. For example, if screens trigger their migraine they may need regular screen breaks or to sit at the front of the class to avoid eye strain.

  • They may need a bottle of water with them at all times to prevent dehydration or to wear sunglasses or sunhats outside if the heat or bright sunlight triggers their attacks.
  • They may also need time off school when they have a migraine attack or to lie down and rest at school if their attacks only last an hour or two. This might mean they need to catch up with missed work or have extra teaching support.
  • They may also need special allowances for their GCSE and A level exams if their migraine attacks might affect their ability to take exams or revise.

The best thing to do is to speak to their teachers or school support staff about their condition, how it affects them and what they need to do to manage it. The school should be able to make reasonable adjustments to support them and put in place an action plan to ensure they are receiving the support they need.

You may need to push for help

Some parents and carers have issues with schools pushing back or not providing the right support. For example, some schools have strict rules about drinking water in lessons or are not sympathetic about frequent absences due to migraine.

If you are struggling to get your teenager the help they need at school, the best thing to do is to speak to their doctor, neurologist or headache specialist if they have one. They should be able to provide a letter to the school detailing information about their condition and what support they need at school.

Their doctor can help with the school

If necessary, you, your child’s school and their doctor can work together to create an Individual Healthcare Plan, which details your child’s needs and ensures they are getting the right support. You could ask for an Education, Health and Care Plan if their migraine is severe. You can also speak to our helpline for free on 0808 802 0066 or via our website if you require further information or support.

We also have a toolkit for parents and carers to help them get support for a child whose migraine is impacting on their education. You can download Migraine: Help in school toolkit below.

“I have had to be a very strong advocate for her in order to get her the medical support she needs, as well as to get the school to understand and make reasonable adjustments.”

How one parent gets help from their child's doctor and school

Getting help from the doctor

The frequency and severity of your teenager’s migraine attacks will affect what type of care they need. Often, migraine can be managed effectively by your teenager’s GP. More extreme cases of migraine, such as chronic migraine, may require a referral to a neurologist or headache specialist. The GP should be able to provide this referral.

  • You doctor will advise them to keep a diary of their daily activities and any migraine symptoms they have experienced. They will ask you to note symptoms and possible triggers such as skipped meals, dehydration or physical activity.
  • After three months of keeping a diary, your doctor will help to determine what might be triggering their attacks. With the doctor’s support, you can then help them avoid and manage their triggers.
  • There are migraine diary apps, such as HeadApp and Migraine Buddy which they can download on their phone, and you can download our headache diary here.

If your teenager is struggling with white backgrounds on paper and screens, you could have them undergo an Irlen Syndrome assessment to work out what colour works best for them.

Medication

The doctor may prescribe medication for their migraine.

  • This may be in the form of acute medication, which is used to stop an attack, or preventive medication, which aims to prevent attacks from happening. Common acute medication includes triptans and anti-sickness medication.
  • Preventive medication includes beta-blockers like propranolol and anti-seizure medication. Children currently cannot have the new calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) treatments for migraine.
  • Your teenager can also take simple painkillers such as ibuprofen or paracetamol to help relieve migraine pain.

However, it is important not to do this too frequently due to the risk of medication overuse headache, which is where the headache condition becomes worse. Paracetamol and NSAIDs (simple analgesics) should not be taken on 15 or more days each month. Painkillers that contain codeine should always be avoided as they are highly addictive and can cause medication overuse headache.

Seeking a referral

If your teenager is under the care of a GP but their migraine has not improved and it is having a significant impact on their life, ask the GP for a referral to a specialist.

“As a sufferer myself, I was able to arm myself with a headache diary when I spoke with our GP to get treatment for my daughter.”

How one parent gets help for his child from their doctor

Getting mental health support for your teenager

Migraine can affect a teenager’s mental health, particularly if it limits their social life and school life or if they feel very anxious about their migraine attacks.

There are a number of things you can do to help them manage their mental health, such as helping them pace their hobbies, social activities, course work and revision to avoid over-exertion. Talking to a young person about how they are feeling and what they feel could help them feel better. For more ideas, click here.

If you are concerned about their emotional wellbeing, you can also seek professional support for them. Their school may provide counselling services, you could pay for therapy privately or you could get a referral from your GP to Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services (CYPMHS) via the NHS.

If they are 18, their GP can refer them to adult mental health services on the NHS. They will suggest what might be most suitable. Mental health service providers include GP surgeries, hospitals and specialist mental health clinics.