Parenting a Child in Pain

As a parent, this is one of the most frustrating and difficult situations we must face.  And, I believe that people cannot completely understand this until they have children of their own, or are extremely close to a specific child, such as a niece or nephew, or the child of a close friend.

Your child is the most important thing in your life.

When your car makes a noise, you can take it to the mechanic who either fixes it or doesn’t fix it.  And, ultimately, who cares?  It’s just a car.

But when your child is sick, or in pain, that is another story completely.  When I practiced general pediatrics, and new families moved into town, the first thing they always did was find a pediatrician or family doctor for their child.  Mothers would not look first for an obstetrician/gynecologist, and families did not seek out a dentist, unless there was a specific related problem.

When we adults are in pain, we can understand and accept it differently because we are, after all, older and have more experienced perspectives.

But when your child is in chronic pain, it is just awful, for both the parent and the child.  Parents may feel frustrated, sad, worried, and at times even a bit discouraged.

Years ago, someone wise told me that we as parents are as happy and healthy as our least happy, healthy child.  Isn’t that the truth?!?!

Depending on the age and developmental level of the child, the approach parents take varies.  I believe that parents should be honest with their children, without causing unnecessary additional anxiety for them.  Illness can typically be explained in language that the child can understand.

A little more about being truthful with our kids.  Often children will need to undergo painful procedures, including having their blood drawn, or surgery.  And, if something is going to hurt, we, and their physicians, need to tell them.  It is just plain wrong to say, “This won’t hurt” when, in fact, a clinician knows that it will hurt.  And when this happens, the child loses trust not only in that clinician, but perhaps in all future clinicians who he might encounter.

Of course, there are some positive ways to prepare a child for a procedure.

And I feel that empathy is one of the most important things we can provide for our children.

Depending on the age, some examples might include:

“Yes, I know it hurts.  And it’s hard.  And you’re mad…mad at the hurting, and mad that you can’t go outside and be with your friends.”

“Yes, you’re right. It doesn’t seem fair that you should be in pain like this.  And I imagine you feel frustrated and worried, and annoyed… And sad that you can’t go to school or play soccer or act in the school play.”

So how do we help our children when they are struggling with chronic pain?

For a toddler or young child, distraction is often helpful.  Playing games, reading, singing, dancing, listening to music, or drawing…these are a few examples of how we can help them get their minds off of the discomfort.

Many parents allow their child extra screen time. I often hear, “Video games and television are the only things that get his mind off the pain.”

As my mentor, Michael Yapko, PhD, says, “What you focus on you amplify.”  So, when parents ask their older child, “What’s your pain level at right now?”  I realize that this is done out of love and concern, but when they do this, it causes the child to focus on the pain, thereby reinforcing it and making it worse! Clinicians also ask this same question, repeatedly, and, again, it forces individuals to focus on the pain.

Medical hypnosis and cognitive behavioral therapy have been shown to be the best treatments for patients with chronic pain.

My program, “Controlling Your Gut Feelings®,” incorporates both of these treatment modalities, as well as powerful motivational tools.

Of all the things for which hypnosis has been proven to be effective, controlling pain is number one. There have been countless studies on this over the years.

And, cognitive behavioral therapy has also been shown to be effective in helping patients control their discomfort, particularly for irritable bowel syndrome and abdominal pain.

What are some concrete steps that you as parents can take to help your child who is in chronic pain?

  1. Encourage as much normal activity as possible.
    1. For example, attending school part time every day. Even if it is via remote learning during the COVID pandemic, this will allow her to have some social interaction with her friends.  During those moments, she will probably not be thinking about the pain.
  2. Don’t ask “How is your tummy? What is the pain level at right now?”

Years ago, there was a study of middle-aged, married men with low back pain. This is a pretty common problem.

They were divided into 2 groups.  In one group, the wife took superb care of her husband.  She was with him most of the time, fluffing his pillow, bringing him his meals, and spoiling him in every way.

In the second group, the wife would go to work in the morning and say something like, “It’s 8 am. I have to leave now.  There’s food in the fridge and you can microwave it. Hope you have a good day. I’ll see you tonight.”

So, guess what happened?  It turned out that whenever a wife in the first group (the one that took great care of her husband) entered the room, his pain level would actually go up!?  How do you explain this?  Remember, she was doing this out of love.

Again, what you focus on, you amplify.

I tell this story to all of my patients and families who are dealing with individuals experiencing chronic pain.  And it can be so hard for parents especially to do this, because they want to take care of their child. Now I realize if you have a young child, you may have to modify how you take care of her.

  1. Assume the best…be a silent cheerleader.
    1. Have an unspoken positive, encouraging attitude that conveys, “Yes, I know it’s hard. And you can do this!”  Again, not as a cheerleader.
      1. Along these lines, it is never, “We can do this.” Remember, Mom and Dad, YOU are not the one with the stomach ache! This is a moment to separate yourself from your child so that he can take control over his own body and life challenges, and he will grow through this.



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