Children think their parents are bullet-proof, so illness or injury in mum or dad can threaten their sense of safety.

WHEN I broke my wrist earlier this year, my six-year-old couldn’t wait to tell her school friends. But very soon, she was drawing pictures of me “before you hurt your wrist”.

All perfectly understandable, says clinical psychotherapist Joanna Fortune ( www.solamh.com ). 

“Magical, omnipotent thinking is very much alive in young children. They believe they can make you better by wishing it so.”

Children think their parents are bullet-proof, so illness or injury in mum or dad can threaten their sense of safety. But there’s a lot parents can do to reassure them. 

Emotionally, children take their lead from their parents, says Fortune. 

“Regardless of what kind of injury, how they cope depends on the age and maturity of the child, and the family dynamic. 

"How are the rest of the family coping? Are there support people available?”

When explaining what has happened, avoid fuzzy language. Keep explanations simple without over-simplifying. 

“Acknowledge that ‘right now, I’m not as able to do what I could, but my arm is going to get better’. 

"Focus on all the things you can do: ‘I can sit and read a story with you or we can watch your favourite TV show together’. Even though you’re not as able physically, you’re still the strong person they can go to,” advises Fortune.

She recommends giving your child practical little jobs that can help the injured parent, which can be a productive distraction. 

“When a parent is suddenly weakened, it’s scary for the child. Make them part of the solution so they get to see ‘I can be part of what helps you recover’.”

Small children may ask lots of questions like ‘can I touch it?’ if it’s an injured limb or visible scar. 

But kids approaching the teen years may turn to their friends for support. This is quite developmentally normal, says Fortune. 

“It’s not that they don’t care. It’s just their way, developmentally, of making sense of things.”

Child psychotherapist and author of Cop On Colman Noctor says when a family member is ill or injured, it’s important to consider the kind of care the ailing person gets and how that might be perceived by others in the family. 

“Children can interpret ‘you need to be sick to be seen’. 

"If mum’s ill and needs to go to the doctor or go to bed a lot, a child might start thinking ‘I need to develop symptoms to receive nurture’.”

He recommends sharing the nurturing around the non-affected family members as well as the injured/ill one.

TOP TIPS

* Explain what has happened in calm, clear, reassuring manner. Be honest. Be appropriate to their developmental level.

* Maintain routine. Children like structure and predictability — sticking to a normal schedule is very reassuring for them.

* Let your child’s school know and raise the possibility of some emotional behaviours.

* Spend time with your child everyday, so they know they still have you despite the injury/illness.


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