Teenagers and chronic pain

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Learn about chronic pain in teenagers and the effect that it may have. Pain management, responsibilities, drinking and drug use are discussed.

  • Help your teen cope with pain by encouraging them to express their feelings and concerns without fear of criticism and teaching them problem-solving skills.
  • Over time, as your teen feels comfortable, let them meet their healthcare providers alone to learn how to manage their own pain and discuss any personal medical issues in private.
  • Remind your teen that any decisions about their education, career and living arrangements should be based on how their chronic pain might impact their overall health.
  • Talk to your teen about the risks of mixing their pain medications with alcohol or other drugs and of giving into peer pressure to share their own medications.

Adolescence can be challenging for any teenager. Chronic pain is an additional challenge, as it can influence relationships with family and friends and have an impact on self-image.

Pain may also interfere with your child's school, recreation and work activities and, along with any related tests or treatments, may also delay normal developmental transitions, such as going to college or university or moving out of the home.

But, most importantly, as your child grows into a teenager, the responsibility for coping with chronic pain will eventually shift from you to them. As your child moves through their teenage years and becomes an adult, they will gradually take on more responsibility for all aspects of managing their pain.

Your role as parents

As a parent, you can help when your child is younger by encouraging them to develop healthy ways of thinking about and coping with chronic pain, for example, by providing relevant information, involving them in decision-making and teaching them problem-solving skills. Always encourage your teenager to express their feelings and concerns about their pain and together you will find ways to address them as they grow to adulthood.

When the time is right, your teenager can begin to take responsibility for their own pain management by beginning to meet with healthcare providers on their own. These unsupervised visits can be phased in over time as the teen feels comfortable. They will help them begin the transition to taking full control of their care. They will also give them the opportunity to discuss more private or delicate issues without parental involvement. Going to appointments alone will get your teenager used to the idea that soon, this responsibility will be entirely their own.

As your teenager takes more responsibility for their own care, some of their decisions may cause problems. Teenagers need to feel confident that they can discuss things with you without fearing criticism or a reprimand. Reinforce your confidence in their ability to make decisions on their own without being too critical. It is important to encourage your teen and offer support as needed to help them make wise decisions.

When needed, consult a health professional with expertise in dealing with teenage issues, such as a social worker, a psychologist, a psychiatrist or a specialist in adolescent medicine. A consultation is especially important if your child engages in risky behaviour or seems unable to cope with emotional issues.

Tips for remembering pain medication

It is not always easy to remember when to take pain medication. Teenagers have busy lives and it may easily slip their minds. Taking medications is often seen negatively, as a burden, a lack of control or a reminder of a condition they would rather forget. Some teens are not experiencing symptoms that would remind them of the need to take medication. In spite of these potential problems, following medication routines is a critical part of taking responsibility for managing pain and can be crucial for optimal pain relief and safety. Here are some tips that you can encourage your teen to adopt.

  • Incorporate pill-taking into their daily routine by connecting it with another daily activity, such as taking a shower in the morning or brushing teeth at night.
  • Encourage your teen to use a pill container of their choice so it is clear what they need to take and when. If your teen does not want to carry a pill container around, consider a container-shaped watch, ring or earrings that are designed to hide pills.
  • Consider an electronic reminder to remind your teen to take their pills. Smartphones, tablets and digital wristwatches can all be programmed to give a brief alarm.
  • If your teenager breaks their routine, for example, by going away for the weekend, there is an increased risk that they will forget to take their pills. You can help your teen by making sure medicine is carried and stored in some accessible but safe place such as a cosmetic bag or purse.

Letting go

At some point, all parents struggle with their teen’s growing independence. For many parents, letting go is a difficult process. It can be even harder if your child has chronic pain. Some parents may even resist their child's efforts to become more independent.

But it is important to come to terms with your child taking control of their lives to make sure that they will be able look after their own health as adults. Some hospitals have support groups that enable parents to discuss these "letting go" issues. If your teenager is well prepared, they can be trusted to look after themselves in a competent manner. Proper preparation means making sure that your child knows all they need to know about their condition, its management and the repercussions of not taking care of themselves.

How will your teenager cope with greater independence?

Some teens eagerly embrace their growing independence and responsibility for their own care. Others are fearful and may continue to rely heavily on their parents. It is important to find a middle ground. Parents can continue to provide some support while they encourage their children to take steps on their own. The ultimate goal should be to gradually transfer complete responsibility of the care from the parent to the adolescent.

Your teenager should understand that major life decisions concerning education, career and living arrangements should be based on how their chronic pain will be managed and how it will influence their overall health and wellbeing. Being “realistically optimistic” about what is and what is not possible about the future is the key.

Teenage drinking and drug use

The adolescent years are the time when many teenagers begin to experiment with risky behaviours such as taking drugs and drinking alcohol. Substance use and abuse is a concern for all parents with teenage children. Teens in chronic pain, especially those who are taking medication for their condition, may have to take special care. A concerted effort on the part of both parents and teens should be made to reduce the possible hazards of substance abuse.

Teens need to be aware of the potential dangers associated with combining alcohol or drug consumption with their pain medications. Both alcohol and drugs have the potential to interact negatively with medication. Sometimes, the interaction may make the medications less effective. In other cases, the combination can be very dangerous or even deadly. It is best to check with your healthcare provider to know how to proceed. At the very least, moderation is key.

Teens may also benefit from learning about strategies for coping with peer pressure to take drugs. For example, at a party, humour can be used as a means of deflecting attention. One quick response might be “No thanks, I’m already on more drugs than anyone here!” Teens need to be aware of all the choices they can make, including making new friends who do not use drugs. They should learn to feel comfortable saying no and walking away from an uncomfortable situation.

Peer influences can go beyond the pressure to drink or take drugs. It may also include the pressure to share. If your teen is taking strong medications for pain relief, it is likely that at some point, someone will ask them to share their medications. Teens should know that sharing their medication is illegal and potentially very dangerous. They should also understand that the responsibility for such an action rests with them.

Talking openly and non-judgementally to your teenager about their choices is the key to helping them to make sound decisions. A physician or counsellor specializing in adolescent issues with whom your teen can talk privately could also provide them with useful guidance. If you are concerned that your teen is engaging in risky behaviour, you should seek the support of a substance abuse counsellor.

As a parent, be aware that your child may engage in drug abuse. Do not assume that because your child has a chronic condition and is aware of how “street” drugs or alcohol can potentially affect their condition, that they will always make the right choice and not take them, especially when there is pressure to do so from peers.

Last updated: September 16th 2009