Not long after her daughter was born in 1999, Sherrie Sisk began experiencing debilitating episodes of pain that left her feeling like she’d been run over by a truck.
“It was like the worst flu aches and pains you could ever imagine,” she says. A few months later, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition characterized by fatigue and pain, particularly focused around certain “tender points” in the body.
Ten years later, she’s learned to live with her condition -- and her daughter has grown up with it. “I have days when I’m relatively functional -- I hurt but it’s manageable. On those days, I can take her to the park and drive her around,” she says. “But on other days, I can’t get out of bed.”
How can you cope with chronic pain and still be the best parent you can be? First, it’s important to communicate with your child.
Talking with Your Child About Pain
Being a parent with chronic pain “reverses the family dynamic,” says Daniel Kantor, MD, president-elect of the Florida Society of Neurology (FSN) and medical director of Neurologique, an organization dedicated to patient care, research, and education. “The parent no longer feels like the person taking care of the child. Sometimes, it can feel like the child is taking care of the parent. It can be very stressful on that relationship.”
The best way to combat that stress is to talk opening about how you feel, Sisk says. “Kids want two things when it comes to chronic pain and parents: information and reassurance,” she says. So don’t hide your condition from your child. (Do you really think you can, anyway?) Instead, talk with them honestly about your pain and in an age-appropriate way.
Expect to have this talk more than once. In some ways, talking to your child about chronic pain is like talking about sex. You’ll have to reinforce your messages over and over again, and modify them as your child gets older and can understand more.
Keep it simple and honest. “Mommy hurts” is a good place to start with a younger child. “Explain to them that there are some things other parents can do that you can’t,” says Sisk. “Tell them what your condition is called and what it means.”
Reassure them. Your child needs to know that you aren’t going to die, and that chronic pain isn’t contagious -- just because you have it doesn’t mean they’ll get it.
Let them help. Just bringing you a glass of water can make a child feel special and important. Just be careful that your child doesn’t turn into the caregiver. Kantor says he knows of 12-year-olds giving their parents their medication injections. “An adolescent shouldn’t act in the role of doctor or nurse.”
- Listen to your child’s concerns. “Ask your child what it is about your condition that really bothers them,” says Maryann Lowry, a retired special education teacher who coaches families on parenting with chronic pain after her own decade-long battle with chronic pelvic pain. “But do it on their timetable. If they come to you upset or concerned, don’t just say ‘it’s OK’ -- ask them what upsets them. For example, you son may feel like you got sicker because he begged you to take him to swim practice. You don’t want to leave a child with that thought.”