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Surprising Ways to Help Alleviate Your Child’s Chronic Pain

The author of When Children Feel Pain shares what every parent needs to know

Many people think of chronic pain as an issue that affects adults only, but chronic pain can afflict kids as well and drastically derail their daily lives. An estimated 20 percent of children in the U.S. have pain that occurs every week or more, and about five percent of children in the U.S. deal with moderate to severe chronic pain that impacts their everyday functioning. Yet in many cases, chronic pain in children is either dismissed or mismanaged. Not only do these kids suffer, but their parents also often feel anxious, worried, and unsure of how they can help.

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Fortunately, there are tactics that parents can employ to help their children get a handle on chronic pain, and many of them are simple—and surprising—lifestyle shifts. Read on to learn why these evidence-based strategies work and how they can benefit your family.

Take sleep seriously

Stressors, like sleep deprivation, can make pain worse. So make it a priority for your child to get enough sleep regularly (yes, this can be hard to enforce with teenagers, but do your best.). While the amount of sleep each child needs tends to vary based on age, the key to getting adequate sleep is to establish a consistent bedtime and waketime—even on the weekends. A well-rested child will be much more capable of managing chronic pain and the mood swings that can go along with it.

Reduce stress as much as possible

Like sleep deprivation, anxiety and depression are tied to our perceptions of pain. Research shows that the more anxiety and depression we feel, the more this can fuel chronic pain. Conversely, stress-relieving activities, like cognitive behavioral therapy, deep breathing, and meditation, can help us manage our sensations of pain. Though staying calm can be easier said than done, especially when dealing with pain, urge your child to find a stress-reducing strategy that they feel comfortable doing, and remind them to use that strategy when they’re in pain. Many kids find it empowering to be able to use a tool they’ve learned to calm themselves down and alleviate pain. But if you’re having trouble getting your child onboard with these strategies, consider reaching out to a child psychologist or behavioral therapist for help.

Get your child moving

Kids who are dealing with chronic pain often don’t feel capable of exercising, walking, or even moving out of fear that it will hurt. So it’s important that kids understand that chronic pain is typically not a sign that they should stop moving. Rather, it is a sign that their nervous system is in overdrive and needs to get reacclimated to everyday tasks. That’s why children with chronic pain are encouraged to take even small steps toward physical activity so that they can either keep up with daily functioning or return to it. To get your child moving, seek out a physical therapist or occupational therapist who is trained to help children regain their physical abilities—and take it slow and steady.

Facilitate participation in activities

When managing chronic pain, it’s common for kids to retreat from the world by giving up extra-curricular activities, forgoing family gatherings, and missing school. For example, chronic abdominal pain can feel too unbearable to manage at a basketball practice, and it can feel impossible to take a social studies test while struggling with a blinding migraine attack. But it’s still useful for kids to try to maintain some normalcy in their lives—even by attending a couple of hours of school (if that’s what they can handle) or by sitting on the bench at practice, if possible. These efforts will keep them connected to their lives, and reduce feelings of isolation and depression, which make pain worse.

Make time for friends

Social ties are vital for children’s mental health, but dealing with chronic pain often leads kids to miss out on time with friends, whether that’s at parties, sports practice, or walking around town. This lack of social time can seriously sever bonds with friends, which can lead to more isolation, depression, and pain. Parents would be wise to remember that keeping up with friends is not trivial for kids. Do what you can to help your child maintain friendships. Find ways to invite kids over to hang out for an hour or two if your child is up for it, or be open to driving your child to activities if it means having quality time with a friend and a distraction from pain.

Manage your own anxiety

Studies show that when a parent is anxious about a child’s pain, this can actually increase the child’s perception of pain. For instance, if you are constantly asking your child how they’re feeling, focusing on their pain, or inadvertently demonstrating that you are worried, your child will pick up on that, and it can negatively impact their pain responses. Of course, it’s practically impossible to hide all of your emotions, but it’s ideal to keep as calm and neutral as possible when supporting your child so that your child can in turn stay as calm as possible, too. If you need some help staying cool, try some of the stress-reducing strategies above before you check in on your child. With your support, your child will be much more likely to thrive.

About The Author
Rachel Rabkin Peachman

Rachel is a seasoned journalist and author specializing in health, science, and parenting. She has written for a range of publications such as The New York Times, Consumer Reports, and The Washington Post. She is also the co-author of When Children Feel Pain: From Everyday Aches to Chronic Conditions (Harvard University Press, 2022). Rachel has been a staff health editor at magazines including Hearst’s Healthy LivingFamily CircleParents, and Parenting. Most recently, she was a deputy of special projects at Consumer Reports. Her work has won the Deadline Club Award for magazine investigative reporting and been a finalist for the National Magazine Award in public interest journalism. A graduate of the University of Michigan and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Rachel lives in New Jersey with her husband and two children.