One of the concerns reported by my chronic pain clients who are also parenting is feeling like they are not as engaged with their children as they would like to be. In addition to generating feelings of guilt and shame around their parenting, this also frequently leads to stress and conflict with the other parent, or the household in general.
Individuals with chronic pain frequently experience symptoms like fear of re-injury, worry about the future and their health, low motivation, and fatigue, to name a few. These can lead to being less active and having no desire to participate in engaging with their children and family. Some of my clients also report that they frequently feel irritable and snap at their immediate family members, including their children, further straining relationships. When this is combined with chronically experiencing pain and coping with various limitations as a result, it can lead to feelings of sadness, hopelessness, low mood, isolation and more.
The biggest challenge for individuals experiencing chronic pain is learning to live in a “new normal.” Shifting their expectations and reframing their thoughts and ideas about what it means to live a fulfilling life, who they are, and how they matter and engage within their families and communities. In reference to parenting in particular, it is important to first have honest, developmentally appropriate conversations with children and family members, about what the person is experiencing in terms of pain and emotionally, as well as how other people in the family are feeling. This helps establish mutual understanding and can lead to having a positive support system for the person experiencing pain.
This is beneficial because it helps create empathy and space for everyone to be able to positively communicate their emotions and needs. If someone is having a particularly tough day with pain, for example, when there is already a foundation of knowledge and understanding, it may be easier to ask for down time, alone time and a break from activities, or whatever else helps the person cope best. It may also help make it easier for family members and children to hear, without internalizing this as a form of rejection.
It is also important to note that with flexibility and some creativity, people experiencing chronic pain can continue to share experiences with their family and play with their children. Many times, we get stuck in thinking that if we can’t do something how we always have, we cannot do it at all. This is what frequently leads to not wanting to engage with children and family. If we shift our focus to what we can do, versus what we can’t, we may discover new ways of doing things that will help us connect with our family and children.
This is not to say we are to ignore our emotions and feelings of grief or loss about what we cannot do, because they are very real and valid. These emotions deserve attention and space for individuals to process and feel them. What it does mean, is that we don’t get stuck there. We flow between giving tough emotions space, and then making room for some positives ones as well, leading to a more balanced state.
Some activities for parents and children to do, which with some adaptation can be done standing, sitting or even laying down, depending on individual needs include:
*Playing with Play-Doh
*Making a puzzle
*Reading a book
*Taking the children to the park and watching them play
*Flying a kite
*Watching something together
*Sharing mealtime conversations
*Having a picnic
*Listening to music
*Going on a nature walk
*Go watch their extracurricular activities
*Take a picture taking walk
Another consideration is a person’s ability to focus and be present, as well as being able to cope with irritability when in pain. Some ways to cope with this is being spontaneous and taking advantage of the times when they are feeling better or having a ‘good day’, to help balance the days when they need to make themselves a priority and need space for themselves; making these interactions short (quality versus quantity of time), but more frequent; choosing calming or relaxing activates; or having another adult participate so they don’t have to lead or be responsible for full engagement.
Many times, children mainly want a parent’s attention and presence. If parents can adapt to the necessary changes in interaction and find time to engage, while making sure to be as comfortable as possible, they will find that they can be more present with their children, and more active in parenting. This will lead to positive feelings for everyone involved, and a more balanced emotional state for the parent experiencing chronic pain.
Written by Taina Aceves, MA, LMFT. Ms. Aceves is a therapist at Pacific Neurobehavioral Clinic, PC.