By: Sophie Gilbert, Penfield Children’s Center
Despite the fact that over 1.7 million children in the United States are known to have chronic pain, it remains an under-recognized health problem for kids and teens (Rachael Coakley, Ph.D.) For a parent, it can be devastating to watch your child endure pain on a daily basis and feel powerless to help them.
Parents may not realize how their own responses to their child’s pain can play a role in how their children feel. Research shows that how a parent or caregiver reacts to a child’s pain can actually influence the child’s pain experience. According to the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, “pain catastrophizing” refers to the tendency to exaggerate a pain experience, to ruminate on the painful experience, and/or to feel more helpless about the experience; and it can have a large impact on how you and your child cope with chronic pain.
Because kids learn by example, how you react to your child’s pain and your own pain, is crucial in teaching your child how to cope. It’s natural to feel down when you have a child with a chronic condition. Here are some ways to cope with a child’s chronic pain, and to help your child in the best way possible.
- Validate your child’s pain, but encourage them to be resilient
Parents should be empathetic, positive, and realistic. Make sure you acknowledge your child’s pain and find ways to offer your love and support. Provide your child with their favorite comfort items and rituals such as their favorite stuffed animal, or reading before bedtime. Continuing to have a routine, and spending quality time with your child can help them feel more comfortable and supported.
- Asking about pain can make it worse
Medical professionals will ask children to rate their pain on a scale at most appointments. Parents should not do this at home. Asking a child how they feel throughout the day draws attention to the severity of the chronic pain, and attention to pain is proven to increase actual symptoms of pain. Ask your child to tell you if their pain levels change significantly. If your child doesn’t bring it up, neither should you.
- Helping too much can delay recovery
It’s okay to help your child, but sometimes taking a step back is more effective. When parents find a way to gently shift away from helping with daily tasks and activities, children will be required to do more, and can start seeing themselves as being more capable. Children figuring out how to do daily tasks on their own, with support from parents, can lead to better adaptation in the future.
- Have a game plan
Make sure your child gets enough sleep, and is eating a healthy diet. Daily routines and consistency can be huge for kids’ mental wellbeing. For school days and family time, it’s important to have a game plan in place for helping your child deal with their pain. This could involve taking family walks, building in breaks during the school day, and keeping teachers up to speed on your child’s condition. Making a list of pain coping tools such as different apps and breathing exercises may also be helpful.
- Let children make decisions about their days
For chronic pain, and any situation that is out of a child’s control, try to build things into their day that are within their control. Sometimes kids with medical issues can feel helpless because they can’t make the issue stop, so having things that are within their control can help with the balance. Some examples could be choosing which coping skills to do, choosing their break times, or choosing what items to take along to medical appointments.
What other coping mechanisms can be part of you and your child’s game plan?
To learn about pediatric chronic pain programs from the American Pain Society, visit: http://americanpainsociety.org/uploads/get-involved/PainClinicList_12_2015.pdf
To learn about short programs designed to help those in chronic pain to cope, contact: Comfort Ability – www.thecomfortability.com/
Consider reading: “When Your Child Hurts: Effective Strategies to Increase Comfort, Reduce Stress, and Break the Cycle of Chronic Pain,” by Rachael Coakley, PhD (Yale University Press Health & Wellness, 2016).