Teaching Children How to Cope with Pain

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

Summer is upon us and so is trauma season. Emergency room visits for children with traumatic injuries can double during the summer. Potential injuries range from insect and animal bites to serious bicycle and ATV injuries.

This means parents will be on the front line, triaging each event to determine which injury needs medical treatment and which requires "only" emotional support.

A mother recently asked newspaper advice columnist Amy Dickinson about the best way to handle her toddler's pain. The mother was seeking suggestions from a stranger because she disagreed with her husband’s approach. She wanted to learn the "right" way to respond to her child's injuries.

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The mother said she felt the need to provide the hurt child with ice packs and hugs, regardless of the extent of the injury, because that felt nurturing and productive.

On the other hand, the father thought his wife was making too big of a deal out of their child's pain. He believed that coddling children deprived them of the opportunity to grow into self-sufficient, resilient adults.

The columnist advised the mother that "tender gestures are an important part of parenting." Show your children that you care about their pain, Dickinson suggested, but don't turn each incident into a melodrama.

The mother's question grabbed my attention, because treating a child's pain is an omnipresent issue with far-reaching implications. By the time they reach age five, children have developed the way they will address adversity for the rest of their lives. Obviously, how a parent responds to a child’s injury -- their attitudes and behaviors -- is part of the culture that helps children form that foundation.

Options in Soothing a Child’s Pain

An overly doting, anxious parent can reinforce a hyperbolic response to pain that has little to do with the actual injury. A small "ouchie" can become a catastrophic event, and that may contribute to learned anxiety and the perception of greater pain.

On the other hand, ignoring an injury can lead to more aggressive attention-seeking behavior. Children need to know that an empathetic adult cares, even if the injury is relatively minor. Feeling safe positively influences a child's experience of adversity.

Children who have the emotional and cognitive ability to understand and determine their response to an injury generally suffer less. This is self-efficacy, and it allows the child to feel in control.

It's important to help children master their response to pain in age-appropriate ways. Of course, you comfort your pre-verbal children with a calm, measured voice and attitude. When children can communicate verbally, you can begin asking them whether their injury is a big one or small one. Then ask the children how they can make themselves feel better. This is how to nurture their resilience.

Accepting Pain

Experts who study why some people seem to handle pain better than others believe that acceptance plays a major role. There are two kinds of acceptance: acceptance with resignation and acceptance with resilience. 

Acceptance with resignation, or learned helplessness, steals hope more thoroughly than pain itself can do. A resigned person feels incapable of solving the problem and simply gives up.

Acceptance with resilience, on the other hand, makes it possible for a person to reinvent himself or herself to resolve the problem.

Children must learn how to accept pain with resilience so they can quickly, and without drama, move on from it. This requires a mutually caring relationship with the parent or guardian.

Big hurts, medium hurts, and small hurts may require different treatment, but not necessarily a different emotional response. Fundamentally, children must realize that everyday hurts are problems with solutions.

I recently watched my daughter instinctively demonstrate this behavior. My granddaughter, Gracie, fell and bumped her knee. The three-year-old began to cry. My daughter then asked Gracie: “is it a "big ouchie" or a "small ouchie?"

The question redirected Gracie’s attention. To my surprise, Gracie answered in a soft and shaky voice, “a small one.” Gracie received a hug from her mom and seemed to forget about the incident.

The Goal Is a Resilient Child

Pain is part of growing up. Parents cannot prevent injuries from occurring with their children, but they can model how to accept the injury with resilience.

To paraphrase Viktor Frankl, we have the power to choose our response to adversity. Relying on ourselves gives us control over our behaviors and happiness.

When parents can model self-efficacy without dismissing a child’s fears or insecurities; the result will be a resilient child who is able to experience pain as part of life, but not mistake it for life itself. 

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Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. Lynn is a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, author of the award-winning book “The Painful Truth” and co-producer of the documentary “It Hurts Until You Die.”

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.