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Home » Communicating with Sick Kids »

How to Respond

Dad: Would you like your medicine before breakfast or afterwards? | Boy: After.

Instead of Battling, Offer Choices

"Don't give up control, but do give choices. Making small decisions will give your child a sense of importance and may inspire him to cooperate. Offer a choice that will not have an impact on your child's health."

Dr. Benjamin Kligler

Associate Medical Director, The Continuum Center for Health and Healing, New York City

Try these take-away tips for talking it through:

Acknowledge how your child feels. Use as few words as possible. Sometimes simply saying, "That must hurt," or even "Uh huh" is enough. Kids will calm down if they feel they have been heard and that you understand.

Accept your child's reality. If your child tells you something that's untrue, try not to deny her point of view. Instead, ask an open-ended question to find out why she thinks the way she does. Then, clear up any confusions. "The feeling of being understood is relieving in itself. The child may think, 'Great, someone knows what I feel!' Over-correcting the child interferes with her inherent desire to be believed," advises Susanna Neumann, Ph.D.

Lead rather than plead. When children are sick, they want to feel the parent is in charge and knows how to take care of them. "Sometimes, the kindest thing a parent can do is simply take the lead. Begging sick children to cooperate relinquishes control, and kids may feel that they have won the battle. It can also scare them. Negotiate for five minutes if you need to, and then that's that," recommends Dr. Benjamin Kligler.

Don't get caught in a negative battle. "If your child says, 'I don't care' or begins to fight with you, don't respond to the emotion," recommends Dr. Stanley Greenspan. Don't try to argue — drop the subject and help her calm down instead. Return to the discussion later, when your child is thinking logically.

It's OK to change your approach. "If you fight with your child about his health, one of the best ways to show him you care is to try something differently," advises Mary Mathews, LCSW, Director of Family Programs at Children's Memorial Hospital. Dr. Benjamin Kligler agrees, "Sticking to your guns is not always the best strategy."

If you use rewards, use them judiciously. There is a range of opinions on whether parents should reward or even bribe children for bravely tolerating painful or difficult situations. "Judicious rewards (or even bribes) can work in the moment. However, be careful not to create a pattern of behavior where the child feels he can demand a reward for doing ordinary tasks," says Dr. Kligler.

Call the doctor whenever you have questions. Experts urge parents to regularly call their pediatricians for health and communication advice. Your doctor can help you explain to your child what is happening.

Develop a strategy for psychosomatic complaints. An imagined or emotionally triggered illness may feel just as real to a child as an actual illness. "Children who are emotionally sensitive are sometimes more vulnerable to psychosomatic complaints. However, this does not mean the child is faking or not feeling well," comments Mary Mathews, MSW. "The source of the problem may be stress or lack of a good night's sleep." It can be useful to set a time for deciding whether or not the child is well enough to go school. You might say, "By 7:30 tomorrow morning, we will decide if you are well enough to go school. If we have a question, we will call the doctor." If this behavior turns into a pattern, experts recommend talking to your school's guidance counselor or a child psychologist.

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