“Mommy doesn’t feel good.”
Parenting with chronic pain can have good days and days that aren’t so good. Especially on a day with breakthrough pain (also known as a pain day). If you are a parent, then you know what this is all about. And you know what your pain days can mean for your children. Below are tips for parenting with chronic pain.
Hearing these words can have a profound impact on children. On a pain day, you may not be able to participate fully in the life of your children. A favorite dinner may need to be postponed for another day. You may find yourself unable to attend a school or family event of, if you do, having to sit at the sidelines while other parents take a more active role. And as you know, your pain may affect your mood, leaving you feeling depleted, downhearted, depressed.
When a parent with chronic pain is having a pain day, children of course feel disappointment. But they may also become worried about you. Household routines change, and kids thrive on routine. You may look or behave differently. Children may observe you taking medication, or more medication than usual. All of this can leave children feeling confused and scared, even if they appear to be taking it all in stride.
Tips for parenting with chronic pain and helping your kids cope
Here are some ways to help children cope you’re having a pain day:
- Give age-appropriate information coupled with lots of reassurance. When children don’t have any information to go on, they make up their own stories. These stories aren’t grounded in reality, and can greatly increase their fears about the future, and can even leave them wondering if they are somehow responsible for their parent’s pain. Stay optimistic when talking to your child – beginning with reassurance that the doctor is working hard to help you feel better. Talk with a therapist or other child specialist if you aren’t sure what your child is ready to hear and when your child is ready to hear it.
- Encourage your child to express his/her feelings. Just because children don’t appear to be worried, doesn’t mean that they aren’t. Children learn to stay positive out of fear that they will cause their parents additional worry. They may also interpret your own insistence in maintaining a positive attitude as a signal that they aren’t supposed to express their own feelings. Start the conversation by simply asking your child is feeling, along with reassurance that you want to hear whatever it is they want to tell you, even the ‘scary stuff.’ Give a few extra hugs and reassuring words.
- Maintain family routines. Day-to-day routines provide children with a sense of comfort and safety, so even the most simple shifts in what’s normal at your house can leave them feeling scared or confused. When you aren’t feeling well, or are preoccupied with your own concerns, you may have days when you are tempted to overlook the details, like making sure you are stocked up on their favorite breakfast cereal, or sitting with them to watch Saturday morning cartoons together. Stay on top of the little details of daily life, and get some help here with any needed tasks that you can’t manage.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Make a list of everything that has to get done and then do some cherry-picking in terms of what you want to handle yourself and where you will need someone else to jump in. Relatives and neighbors can be enlisted to give you a hand with housework, grocery shopping, or providing transportation to extra-curricular activities. If you are partnered, or have teens, they may be able to help out with the younger children. Save your best energy for the tasks that bring the most quality of life for you and your children – having lunch together, walking or sitting outside, doing homework together. This may also be a good time to invite the grandparents for a visit if they can give you some temporary back-up.
- Accept help from your child. It is human nature to feel helpless when a loved one is not feeling well. And when we feel helpless, we want to do anything possible to feel like we are doing something – anything – to make things better. Give your child the opportunity to do you a favor, something as simple as helping you make dinner or perform other household chores. Better yet, find projects that you can work on together.
- Don’t neglect your own well-being. Remember that you can’t take care of others if you aren’t also taking care of yourself. Listen to your doctor’s recommendations, and listen to your own body. Make sure you are following your treatment plan and getting adequate rest. If you find that you aren’t able to get the rest that you need, review that list or priorities and see where you need some additional assistance. Don’t try to be Super Mom or Super Dad (even if that means the house isn’t quite as spotless as usual, or if the dishes stay in the sink a little longer).
- Use the 80/20 rule. Speaking of a messy house… Decide what’s most important and what can slide. Avoid placing unnecessary pressure on yourself by prioritizing what’s most important, like your own self-care and quality time with your loved ones. Focus on what you most want to accomplish, the 80 percent, or less, depending on how your pain is making you feel, and let the rest of it slide. Or again, ask someone to give you a hand.
- Find a safe place to express your own feelings. What’s going on with you emotionally? Children are very perceptive, and they can sense when their parents are worried or scared or otherwise trying to keep their feelings bottled up. Feelings don’t go away by themselves. Talk with someone you trust – a friend, family member, a member of the clergy, or a therapist. If you’re clear on how you’re feeling about your illness, you’ll be better able to help your children with their own emotions. Don’t go through this alone.
Sure, a pain day is a lot to deal with when you are a parent, and a lot for your kids to deal with. But pain days can also provide an opportunity for growth. Children can learn to be more independent, have more empathy, more compassion, and you can develop a deeper relationship with your children that includes sharing of emotions and joint problem-solving. Stick around for more tips for parenting with chronic pain from Dr. Gary.