Psyching Out Kids’ Pain

Cognitive and behavioral techniques can prove invaluable

mother and son lying outdoors

It’s no secret that chronic pain during childhood can take a heavy toll on youngsters and their caregivers.

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But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Gerard Banez, PhD., Director of the Pediatric Pain Rehabilitation Program at Cleveland Clinic Children’s Hospital. Pediatric psychologists can teach children to play a role in their own pain management.

For kids: Simple but effective tools

Along with medication and physical therapy, these cognitive and behavioral techniques can prove invaluable:

  • The power of self-talk. Kids can learn to give themselves a pep talk about their pain. For example, “I know I have this problem, but I’m not going to let it keep me from getting out of bed and going to school.”
  • The art of distraction. Engage your child through a “cycle of activity.” Take 10 minutes on one task, break for five, then take up another one.
  • Taking a deep breath. Teach your child to fill up their belly with air like a balloon and to blow it out as if blowing a giant bubble through a bubble wand. Oxygen flow in the body has a calming effect.
  • Progressive relaxation. Help your child learn to isolate muscle groups. Starting at the toes, tense each muscle for 10 seconds, then relax for 10 more, until you reach the scalp.
  • Guided imagery. Your child closes his or her eyes and focuses on a happy setting. This creates a feeling of relaxation. Ask your child to breathe deeply and describe the scene.
  • Keeping a pain diary. When your child feels pain, ask him or her to record the sensation, intensity, location, timing and circumstances. This can provide clues about what triggers or worsens the pain.

Gently encourage your child to employ these pain-relieving techniques. Then stand back and see what happens.

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Other tips for parents

  • Encourage participation. Let your child go to school, do extracurriculars, spend time with friends and help with chores. This tells your child that you believe he or she is strong enough to manage the pain.
  • Stick to rest on sick days. If your child can’t attend school, have them rest quietly. Avoid providing unrestricted access to TV or computers.

Don’t discount the difference a mind-over-matter approach can make. Understanding the pain experience and how to gain some control over it can be empowering.

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