If only a kiss on the boo-boo could make it all better. But as parents, we know that kids can suffer pain and that helping is often more complicated than that. Sometimes you may feel like you can’t help at all. But don’t underestimate your role: pediatric experts stress that parents are vital to managing and even ending pain. Here are a handful of ways you can help, whether your child’s condition is new or has been going for years.
Act early but don’t overreact
Think of pain like a snowball rolling down a hill, says Lonnie Zeltzer, M.D., director and founder of the Pediatric Pain Program at Mattel Children’s Hospital at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and co-author of Conquering Your Child’s Chronic Pain (HarperCollins, 2005). The farther it rolls, the more snow and debris it picks up along the way.
Similarly, treatment can get more complicated if you wait to get it diagnosed and treated. Parents should believe their children when they have pain, says clinical psychologist Patrick McGrath, Ph.D., a pediatric specialist. But they don’t have to go into a flurry of activity, or relieve a child of responsibility for duties and chores. Balance is key.
Delaying treatment can add to a kid’s stress, which can make the ache worse, so call the doctor if the discomfort is severe, if there are new symptoms or side effects, or if it is lingering for a couple of days.
Recognize the need for distance
In cases where a child is experiencing severe, chronic pain, Michael Stanton-Hicks of the Cleveland Clinic may separate child and parents while he’s treating the child if he suspects Pain-Associated Disability Syndrome (PADS). If a family is dealing with PADS, parents are often the biggest part of the problem.
Enmeshment is the term psychologists use when a father or mother are enmeshed with a child’s pain, he explains. In other words, the child, by proxy, becomes a source of maintaining the pain. If the parent is stuck to the child day and night, the child doesn’t have the ability to develop their own self-esteem.
Successful treatment for a child must include a parent’s commitment to breaking the cycle of enmeshment.
Look for signs
A lot of kids won’t complain about their discomfort, notes Stanton-Hicks. They don’t want to be perceived as weak or weird by their peers.
Pay attention to how your child is behaving:
- Does she hold back from physical activities?
- Does he have trouble sleeping or appear exhausted?
- Does she seem distracted or very forgetful?
- Does he find excuses to avoid school and spend time with his peers?
These are all possible signs your child is suffering more than you may realize.
Go to school
Anticipate challenges at your child’s school, especially if they have an illness that isn’t visible. While schools usually understand the need to accommodate a child with cancer or diabetes, chronic issues like headaches and backaches are harder to see, McGrath says. They can come and go, so they may not take your child’s condition as seriously.
Make an appointment to talk to your child’s teacher and the school nurse, and the principal. And don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. It’s important for them to realize kids can suffer pain and to act on their behalf.
Encourage the good days
There will, of course, be ups and downs for any kid living with chronic pain. When things are going well make sure to prompt your child to spend time with his friends, go to sleepovers or join activities he enjoys.
We don’t want parents to give up their expectations for their children, stresses McGrath. Don’t baby them. Give them the opportunity to do things and contribute to the family on those good days. A warm, supportive environment with reasonably high expectations is always good for kids.
For more advice on how to help your child manage their pain, read the Fall 2012 issue of Pain Resource Magazine.