Chronic pain: Effective parenting for teens

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

Key points

  • Encourage your teen to keep to their normal routines as much as they can, but strike a balance between ground rules and your teen's growing independence.
  • Help your teen with upcoming transitions, including accessing supports in post-secondary institutions and receiving care in the adult health system.
  • Avoid dismissing or over-focusing on your teen's pain, offering "secondary gains" or isolating your child.
  • 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 teen in chronic pain is to encourage them to keep to routines. Even if your teen is in pain, getting back into routines (for example, going to school, doing gym class, going to bed at the same time or doing social activities) will help them manage it in the long-run.

Pain tends to improve once function improves. When encouraging your teen to keep normal routines, strike a balance between your teen's independence and self-advocacy (ability to speak and act for themselves) and the importance of clear ground rules. Decide, for instance, on some core expectations for your teen, such as helping with certain chores or behaving in acceptable ways towards family members, even though they have chronic pain.

What if my teen is saying they are too tired to keep their routines?

  • Use pacing.
  • Focus on activities your teen enjoys.
  • Use rewards as a way of encouraging your teen.
  • Draw on professionals to encourage your child.
  • Do not hesitate to seek an expert's advice (such as a parenting expert or a health-care provider with expertise in rehabilitation strategies for children and teens).

What if my teen is being oppositional about keeping their routines?

  • It is ok to push your teen and set limits on behaviour that you think may lead to more problems (such as missing school, important family activities or being disrespectful).
  • Seek out supports. A behavioural therapist can be very helpful.

As you support your teen in returning to normal routines, remember to be sensitive to the reality of your teen's pain. In many cases, it may be helpful to work with other important people in your teen's life (such as coaches, counsellors or bosses) to discuss and arrange modifications (changes) to their routine. Do not hesitate to reach out to health-care professionals to support you with this.

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 teen 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 teens 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
  • encouraging regular exercise outdoors but no vigorous exercise an hour before bedtime
  • teaching your teen to relax at bedtime and fall asleep on their own

Helping your teen with transitions and uncertainty

The teenage years can be a time of transition and can naturally lead to uncertainty. Because chronic pain can be associated with uncertainty, things may be extra tough for your teen.

As teens approach post-secondary education, we often observe that they make efforts to improve their situation. Outside of their education, it is worth considering new health-care services your teen will transition to when they reach the age for adult care.

Post-secondary institutions typically have excellent health and psychological services. Encourage your teen to make links with these services once they choose a post-secondary institution and work with them to help manage their chronic pain and any distress.

Respecting your teen's growing independence and maturity

Whenever possible, collaborate with your teen and make decisions together. For example, you should expect that your teen attends school, but you can make decisions together about what that will look like (for example a gradual re-entry and a goal to settle into the school environment and see friends rather than achieve certain grades right away).

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

Do not dismiss your teen's pain

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

Avoid over-focus on the pain

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

Do not allow your teen to become isolated

Do not allow your teen to stay out of school or away from other places where they can mix with their peers.

Avoid being over-protective

Do not let your teen's pain affect their increasing independence. It is important at this stage of development for your teen to develop independent strategies to cope with their pain.

Do not provide your teen with "secondary gains"

With chronic pain, secondary gains are benefits that a teen might receive 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 teen to avoid chores
  • tolerating verbal aggression or other unacceptable behaviour

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

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

Supporting yourself when a teen has chronic pain

Having a teen 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.

Parent of a 16-year-old with chronic pain

"Don't feel guilty as a parent… It's ok for parents to have bad days too… make time for yourself to stay healthy. Surround yourself with people who understand.

Supporting your teen if you have chronic pain

If you are living with chronic pain, consider how it might be impacting your teen 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 teen

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

Last updated: January 25th 2019