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When a stressed child’s body says ‘Enough already,’ it can be frightening

When my daughter was in 4th grade, she suddenly, inexplicably lost the sight in her right eye — and before we could determine why, the same thing happened to her left eye.

School, Girl Scouts, soccer, orchestra, church youth group … and the list goes on. Kids today are involved in so many activities.  Did you ever wonder how much is too much?

Dangerous stress levels aren’t always apparent to children or parents until something dramatic occurs as a way of saying, “Enough already.” And sometimes those warnings can be pretty frightening.

Believe me, I know. A few years ago when my daughter Whitney was in 4th grade, she suddenly and inexplicably lost the sight in her right eye — and before we could determine why, the same thing happened to her left eye. My baby was blind.

The terrifying episode began on a Wednesday night when she came to me after AWANA, a church activity for kids who are in preschool through 5th grade. It seems she had poked herself in the eye with a pencil. I looked at the eye and saw no redness or swelling, but thought I should have her checked out.

A trip to urgent care allayed any fears I had. The doctor could see nothing wrong with the eye. If anything, there might have been a microscopic scratch on the cornea. But by morning Whitney was complaining that she could see nothing but gray and shooting light in her right eye.

A trip to our ophthalmologist, Dr. Gerald Loushin, confirmed the urgent-care doctor’s diagnosis. But it was good the pencil incident sent us in, he said. After dilating the eye and taking a look in the back, he could see nothing to cause the loss of sight. He sent her for an MRI to see if there was something he was missing. Again, there appeared to be nothing wrong physically, but my little girl still could not see out of her right eye.

As I was helping her get ready for bed that night, she suddenly started crying hysterically, saying she couldn’t see out of her left eye either. To say I was panicked is an understatement, but I had to try to hold it together to comfort her. I phoned the on-call ophthalmologist at about 9 p.m., and he said to bring her in to the office right then. I also contacted the on-call pediatrician, whose sub-specialty is neurology.  

The ophthalmologist examined Whitney, who could not see the giant E on the eye chart — or even the chart itself, for that matter. His diagnosis: functional blindness. The pediatrician said, “Ah yes, conversion reaction,” the general term for a condition that is characterized by loss of a bodily function with no biological explanation. It is also sometimes called conversion disorder. Stress is the culprit, the two doctors agreed, and is not that rare in children.

Without a doubt conversion reaction is “weird,” said Dr. Loushin, when I talked to him again recently. “It becomes the diagnosis of exclusion after a while. As kids get stressed it is expressed through their eyes” as functional blindness.

Whitney was fortunate in that her sight returned in both eyes the next morning. It was back just as suddenly and mysteriously as it had disappeared.  The blindness returned briefly a few weeks later, but this time both Whitney and I realized it was nothing to cause panic. She took a couple of deep breaths and calmed herself. Her sight returned in 10 minutes.

It hasn’t happened again because we worked to relieve some of the stress. She dropped one of her activities, and she now sees Bill Clafton, a psychologist at Fraser Child and Family Center, once a week. Always reticent to talk about her feelings with me, she is comfortable talking with him about school, friends, teachers, whatever.

While conversion reaction is an extreme example of what stress can do, many children are affected by stress.

“Because our lives are so fast-paced and overscheduled, parents need to watch for signs of stress in their children,” said Marti Erickson, developmental psychologist and co-host of Mom Enough, an online show that explores the many facets of motherhood today. But more important, parents need to offset the stress with positive countermeasures, she said.

For example, “seeing green” on a nature walk is quite therapeutic, Erickson said. “Our kids are so disconnected from the natural world. There is a growing body of research that shows being out in nature provides stress-reduction benefits.”

In addition, she said, parents can help their kids develop self-regulating techniques when they’re feeling, stressed such as belly breathing and creative visualization, as well as establishing quiet time.