Placebo Pills for Children

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A company in the USA produces children’s placebo tablets, cure-alls containing absolutely no active substances, selling in effect the illusion that there is a pill for every kind of distress.

Awhile ago I wrote “Long Live the Placebo!”, my empowering take on the placebo effect. A recent article from the New York Times on placebo pills for children has caused me to rethink or rather to qualify my enthusiasm, as I realise to what ends this amazing human capacity for activating our own healing can be used.

The article relates the founding of a company in the USA which produces children’s placebo tablets, cure-alls containing absolutely no active substances, which are designed to reduce the needless giving of drugs like painkillers by parents and the prescribing of, say, antibiotics by doctors who are constantly bothered by children, or rather their parents, complaining of ailments without any obvious physical cause.

This sounds like very admirable motivation, but what it boils down to is selling pretty tablets made of nothing at all that taste and look like real medicine, selling in effect the illusion that there is a pill for every kind of distress. This could disempower children at a young age — on a physical level robbing them of the opportunity to see how minor injuries, aches and pains heal themselves, and on a mental/emotional level, even more worryingly, teaching them that states of loneliness, misery or distress (that is, normal, human, emotional stuff) can be best solved by asking someone to give you a drug. The possible implications of this in later life hardly need to be spelled out.

This makes me think of how senseless, and indeed disturbing, I have always found the comment made to parents coping with loud demands from their children — “ignore him — he just wants your attention.” If you notice that a child wants more of your attention to the extent that it is getting on your nerves, then surely it is better to think about the kind of attention you are giving and try to meet their needs better before they start to behave disruptively or fake a tummy ache to get it?

Once this behaviour has started, then the parent may fear that they are rewarding bad behaviour or faked illness, neither of which will do their children any favours later on. The only way of directly counteracting this however would be to start a destructive spiral of withdrawn attention. I would say that it is never too late to take a step back and give children the sort of attention they really need, which is not being told off or being “fixed” with a pill, but being listened to, understood and supported.

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But sometimes pains of whatever kind just fall on us out of nowhere. They are overwhelming and frightening. When your children are suffering like this you would do anything to take it away from them, and sometimes simple reassurance does not work. I would say that there is a case for the use of some form of creative “magic” here, and I wouldn’t scorn a parent who reached for a bottle of “something” in an attempt to help. I just don’t like the implications of the involvement of an industry in producing these bottles.

Parents have after all been “kissing it better” for generations. This could be seen either as pure placebo, or as just giving the child directly what they want and need. If they really are “making up” on some level their physical distress, then this is what they are asking for, the pure and undiluted active substance, a physical demonstration of love.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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