Chronic pain: Effective parenting for older children

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​​Find out how you can use effective parenting strategies to support the 3Ps of pain management for your older child with chronic pain.

Key points

  • Help your child keep to their regular routines and offer rewards for doing so.
  • Set your child up with good sleep habits, such as a consistent bedtime and a relaxing routine in the evening.
  • Help your child with upcoming transitions, such as starting in middle school, and avoid over-protecting them.
  • Be sure to look after yourself so you can support your child. If you have any concerns about your or your child's wellbeing, seek professional help.

Keeping routines

One of the best ways to help your child in chronic pain is by keeping and encouraging routines. Even if your child is in pain, getting back into routines (for example going to school, doing gym class, going to bed at the same time or taking part in social activities) will help their chronic pain in the long run.

Pain tends to improve once function improves. Encourage your child to do simple chores like tidying their room or setting the table and provide rewards when they do so.

It can be helpful to make a daily schedule with your child and post it somewhere they can easily see it, such as the fridge door, to make sure that routines are followed.

As you support your child in keeping normal routines, remember also to be sensitive to the reality of your child's pain. In many cases, it may be helpful to work with other important people in your child's life (such as coaches or counsellors) and alter your child's routine, for example adjusting gym class. Do not hesitate to reach out to health-care professionals to support you with this.

Offering rewards

For younger children in this age group, you can use a sticker chart system alongside the daily schedule. For instance, you might use a sticker to keep track of their successes every day and, when they achieve a certain goal, give an agreed reward such as going for ice cream or on a special outing together. Verbal praise can also be very effective.

Older children appreciate verbal praise, particularly about their independence.

Encouraging good sleep hygiene

It is very important for your child to get enough sleep. Lack of sleep (fewer hours of sleep or less restful sleep) can affect your child's mood and their experience of pain.

Vicious cycle of pain and sleep

Understand the sleep needs of your child and follow some standard sleep hygiene guidelines to allow them to get enough sleep and better manage any pain during the day. Some things to consider for older children include:

  • avoiding caffeine, high levels of sugar and spicy food within four hours of bedtime
  • avoiding screen time for at least an hour before bedtime
  • keeping TVs, game consoles, computers and other screen devices outside the bedroom
  • teaching your child to relax at bedtime and fall asleep on their own

Helping your child with transitions

The developmental stage of your child means that they may be facing upcoming transitions (changes) that could impact their experience of pain. Some children may be anxious about transitions such as entering middle school, going to a new camp, starting a new after-school activity or joining a new school team.

One way to support your child with any upcoming transitions is to have a relaxed conversation with them ahead of time to see if they might have any fears. Once you know how your child is feeling, you can reassure them and seek help if needed.

Encouraging your child to follow routines may feel tough at times for both you and your child. It is important to remember that your child needs your support. Your goal should be to help your child regain their independence. It is also important to remember that as children head into middle school, they will be start wanting to become more independent.

What to avoid when responding to your child's chronic pain

Do not dismiss your child's pain

Because pain is invisible, it is very important to let your child know that you believe their pain is real.

Avoid over-focus on the pain

Try not to ask your child about their pain too often or bring up your child's pain as a frequent topic of conversation.

Do not isolate your child

Do not keep your child out of school or away from other places where they can mix with children.

Avoid being over-protective

Do not let your child's pain affect their growing independence. Help them maintain any developmental milestones they have mastered such as making their own lunch or going on school trips (within reason and with support from the school).

Avoid speaking for your child

Encourage your child to speak for themselves about their own pain and their thoughts.

Do not provide your child with "secondary gains"

With chronic pain, secondary gains are benefits that a child receives because of their pain that they would not get otherwise. They might include:

  • giving treats to ease discomfort
  • bending rules frequently, such as allowing a child to avoid chores or stay home from school
  • tolerating verbal aggression or other unacceptable behaviour

Avoid continually searching for an elusive cause for your child's pain

Chronic pain often has no identifiable cause. Seeing more specialists or getting more tests often keeps your and your child's focus on pain rather than getting on with life.

Avoid making your child feel like pain is a defining feature of their self-image

Acknowledge and encourage your child's varied qualities, skills and achievements so that their pain is just a part of their day-to-day life and not something that controls their identity.

Supporting yourself when an older child has chronic pain

Having a child with chronic pain can be really hard for parents. Taking time for self-care is especially important as it will help you to be your strongest self (and, in turn, implement the pain management strategies as effectively as possible).

Self-care will look different for everyone, but here are some suggestions:

  • ensure you get enough sleep
  • exercise
  • eat a balanced diet
  • socialize with people who make you happy
  • do activities or hobbies that you enjoy

In some cases, it may be helpful to seek personal support for your own needs from a health-care professional. Remember to go easy on yourself and recognize that doing so is ok.

Supporting a child if you have chronic pain

If you are living with chronic pain, consider how it might be impacting your child or how you respond to them. Aside from engaging in your own self-care, it may be helpful to speak to a parenting expert.

Getting professional help for your child

Seek professional help if you are unsure about any aspect of your child's care (for example any medication instructions) or if you have any concerns about your child's mental health. Never hesitate to seek assistance from specialists to support your child, and help yourself.

Last updated: January 25th 2019