Keepin’ It Real – Tips for Parenting with Chronic Pain

Table of contents

Keepin’ It Real – Tips for Parenting with Chronic Pain

Parenting can be challenging at the best of times – but parenting with chronic pain can get downright overwhelming!

If you are living with chronic pain, you know only too well the mental and physical effort required to manage pain. Add in the responsibility of having some little people running around constantly needing your attention and it can be damn hard work! Hard, but not impossible.

Let’s explore some practical tips and tricks for keeping it real when you're a parent who has chronic pain.

“It’s not only children who grow. Parents do too.
As much as we watch to see what our children do with their lives, they are watching us to see what we do with ours. I can’t tell my children to reach for the sun. All I can do is reach for it, myself.”
-Joyce Maynard

My pain story reached a crisis point about nine months after my first child was born. Before their birth, I had been managing my chronic pain the best way I knew how…by alternating between avoidance and overdoing it. However, once I had a baby to look after, and with all of the changes that come with a newborn (disturbed sleep, chaotic routine and rapidly changing hormone levels), I began to flounder.

I was struggling with all the carrying, soothing, changing, feeding and playing. I felt like I needed to be ‘on’ all the time, and as my pain spiraled, I could no longer cope. I was reaching breaking point, depressed and finding it nearly impossible to manage my time, energy and pain.

At that point, when I realized I needed help, I was lucky to be pointed towards a pain management clinic. There, I was able to learn some useful pain-management tools that allowed me to get back on track. Today, I’m going to share some of my top strategies for parenting when you live with pain.

Talk about it

What impact does chronic pain have on children?

My kids are a bit older now, but when they were young we were often careful about what was said around them regarding my pain, treatment options and medications.

Kids have this amazing ability to ignore a request, but hear a whispered inappropriate conversation (or the muffled unwrapping of snacks) from a few rooms away! If kids constantly overhear these conversations, they can start to take on these worries, and catastrophizing isn't good for anyone. However, including children in purposeful conversations about pain (with age appropriate explanations) can be helpful.

In my family, we have discussed how I best manage my pain and how I’m currently coping. Frank, honest conversations are also needed when it comes to setting boundaries. It's inevitable there will be times your kids might be disappointed that you can't attend an event or participate in something. However, if they know why, and (more importantly!) that it's nothing to do with them or your desire to be involved, they’ll understand.

No matter your pain levels, some of the simplest ways to express and share love don't require much physical effort at all. Asking about your kids' day when they get home from school, or a whispered I love you, can bring you closer together.

Get them involved

You might wonder how chronic pain affects family members. Perhaps you’re concerned that when your symptoms are high you can’t do as much around the house and need to lean on your children to do more. It’s okay.

Growing up, I had chores to do (although, being the youngest of five, I was very good at squirming my way out of them). With such a big family, we all needed to pull our weight and learn how to work together as a team to keep the household running.

I wanted my kids to learn these same lessons and pitch in too. I was also pretty motivated because I knew getting them involved in basic housework would mean less work for me in the long term. Of course you need to keep it age appropriate, but don't be fooled, younger kids can do things too! As young as two, children can put away their toys, set the table and fetch things for you.

Here is my never fail: “I bet you can’t run this to your room before I count to ten? One, two…” and off they’d run!

This worked every time (for my kids, when they were younger anyway). Once you find what works stick to it, until it doesn’t.

As kids change and grow, their expectations, abilities and involvement can expand. My eldest (15) has been cooking once a week for the family for the past few years. Sometimes you might even need to pull out the odd bribe (ahem, sorry I mean ‘incentive’). And don't forget, it's not just chores they can help with. A quick shoulder rub, running a bath, baking your favorite sweet treat…the possibilities are endless.

Another important way my kids help me is with their constant encouragement and support. Kids generally really want to be helpful – they love a job to do. And they make great cheerleaders!

Extra ideas and tips are always available on parenting blogs, especially for things like chore charts, weekly planners and more.

Get creative

In her book about living with pain called ‘Ten Pathways: A Framework for Redefining Happiness’, Fleur Chambers talks about how she and her family call her fibromyalgia ‘Teddy’.

When she has a flare or is finding her pain particularly challenging, they say ‘Teddy has come to visit’. I think this is great – reduces the stigma and worry that comes with a flare-up, and brings the family together to figure out a shared solution.

Creativity can also come in handy when you are trying to figure out a solution that will work for everyone. For example, your child wants you to take them to some fancy new play center but you’re having a challenging day and know the standing, sitting, driving involved with the outing will likely flare your pain. Instead, you could build a blanket fort in the living room, or spend some time exploring the backyard together. If finger painting is too hard due to the amount of clean up required, maybe they could paint with water outside? There is always an alternative that will work for everyone. Maybe your child can learn that hugs happen on the couch (because bending or lifting are challenging). This can then become a ritual that is unique to your family.

We have tickle fights in our family, it's a fun way to connect (and it happens easily enough while I’m lying down), they all just know that I just need to tap out after a few minutes.

Practice self care

In our house, we have a thing everyone understands called 'TTS' or Time To Self. If anyone needs a little time out, they request some TTS and that means everyone else steps back and gives them space.

From a young age my kids would entertain themselves while I took some TTS to complete necessary self-care tasks such as doing a meditation, stretching or a walk/exercise outside. If you’re after some ideas on ways to incorporate more energizing, helpful daily practices as part of your own TTS read our Top 5 Pain Management Techniques, According To Pain Science!

Self-care is an important practice to get into the habit of doing as a parent. Whether you live with pain or not, prioritizing time to look after yourself is always time well spent. Don’t forget the old adage that a healthy parent equals healthy kids.

If I don’t prioritize self-care (and for me this means attending to my pain self-management techniques), I will become an irritable parent with a pain flare, which isn’t fun for anyone!

Self care also relates to self compassion. Parenting is hard. Pain is hard. It's okay to acknowledge that you are dealing with both of these hard things, and give yourself a break! Treat yourself with kindness, as you would show to your children, friends or family members.

Self care also becomes important for those times we make mistakes – because we all make mistakes! When this happens, take a deep breath, apologize if you need to and move on. This also gives you the opportunity to model positive behavior. Kids need to see that parents are not perfect, not robots, and that we all make mistakes. It's what happens afterwards (actions and thoughts towards yourself and those we direct back to our kids) that makes all the difference.

Replace "am I a bad parent?" guilt with gratitude

Do you ever worry, "how can I be a good mum with fibromyalgia?" or "am I a good dad despite my chronic pain?"

Rest and pacing are important self-management tools. When pain flares, it is important to prioritize which tasks are necessary. If I’m having a particularly hard pain day, I will be gentle on myself and allow myself to “take things easy”.

Previously, during these flares, I would stress myself further during this (already) difficult time by piling on the mummy guilt, berating myself that "I should be playing with the kids" or "I should be doing some housework". I felt horrible that I couldn’t give them some fun experience because I needed to rest. Enter guilt and negative self-talk (which never help).

So now, instead I focus on gratitude. I’m grateful for the opportunity to snuggle with my children. I’m grateful to spend some quiet time with them reading. Rather than feel guilty for not doing something, I’m grateful for what I am able to do at that moment. But I will admit this is still an area of struggle for me – there will be days when I still feel I am a “bad mum” – perhaps this guilt is hardwired into us the day we give birth. However, it’s a good chance to gain perspective. One day is just a blip in their whole lives. And, don't forget, kids are pretty resilient, they’ll survive just as we do!

It’s also important to remember that as kids get older, their brains also start going over-thinking mode – they can experience guilt as well. It can be easy for them to link something they asked you to do with a flare-up or pain. Be reassuring and honest (that’s where talking about it helps!) so that they also don't get the ‘guilts’. Can they flip the situation into gratitude as well?

Mindfulness

Young kids provide an excellent example of mindfulness practice. They almost always live in the present moment.

When they are young, there is little room in their developing brains for worry, rehashing past mistakes, and the stress that comes along with it. They are all about the here and now. Sometimes it’s good to take their lead – get down to their level, play together and be in the moment. This type of mindfulness can produce wonder, joy, and genuine connection.

Teachable moments

Parenting is a big responsibility – this little malleable mind is yours to mold!

Managing my pain on a daily basis teaches my kids what it means to invest in your health. Living well while self managing persistent pain takes strength and discipline. I am modelling to them that I am able to take control of my health. In the future, if they face health challenges, I want them to know that they too have the ability to get through it.

But at the same time, I want my kids to know that life can sometimes be hard. Or, as they like to say, life isn’t always rainbows and unicorns. I want them to be aware that people struggle with stuff, no one is perfect. So, I’m hoping they learn a little empathy along the way too.

Research backs this up. Children with parents with ongoing pain self-report higher levels of empathy towards others. The same review also found some other positives in growing up with a parent experiencing chronic pain – these kids felt that they were more independent and had a better understanding of health and coping strategies.

Motivation

Kids are so precious. And, as Ferris Bueller says, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” You only need to talk to parents of older children and they’ll tell you that the time just flies so try your best to enjoy every moment.

Making sure you are there with your kids every step of the way is pretty good motivation to take control of your pain. Indeed, one study that looked at people who lived well with chronic pain found that caring for others was a key protective factor – it reduced the negative impact of pain on people's lives. So, even if they drive me crazy some of the time, I wouldn't change my kids for the world!

And so all the work you do to manage pain is worth it so that you can show up, on your best days and your worst days, to be there for them, just as you are.

“We’re all imperfect parents, and that’s perfectly okay. Tiny humans need connection, not perfection.”
-LR Knost

Are you parenting with pain? Do you have any hot tips to share? Why not get in touch with us or join the 'Living well with fibromyalgia' Facebook community where we share tips, solutions and strategies for living well with pain.

  1. Higgins, K,S., Birnie, K.A, Chambers, C.T., Wilson, A.C.,Caes, L., Clark, A.J., Lynch, M., Stinson, J., Campbell-Yeo, M. (2015) Offspring of parents with chronic pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis of pain, health, psychological, and family outcomes. PAIN 156(11):p 2256-2266, November 2015.
  2. Sheedy,J., McLean, L. Jacobs, K and Sanderson, L. (2017) Living well with chronic pain, Advances in Mental Health, 15:1, 15-27.

Keepin’ It Real – Tips for Parenting with Chronic Pain

Table of contents

Keepin’ It Real – Tips for Parenting with Chronic Pain

Parenting can be challenging at the best of times – but parenting with chronic pain can get downright overwhelming!

If you are living with chronic pain, you know only too well the mental and physical effort required to manage pain. Add in the responsibility of having some little people running around constantly needing your attention and it can be damn hard work! Hard, but not impossible.

Let’s explore some practical tips and tricks for keeping it real when you're a parent who has chronic pain.

“It’s not only children who grow. Parents do too.
As much as we watch to see what our children do with their lives, they are watching us to see what we do with ours. I can’t tell my children to reach for the sun. All I can do is reach for it, myself.”
-Joyce Maynard

My pain story reached a crisis point about nine months after my first child was born. Before their birth, I had been managing my chronic pain the best way I knew how…by alternating between avoidance and overdoing it. However, once I had a baby to look after, and with all of the changes that come with a newborn (disturbed sleep, chaotic routine and rapidly changing hormone levels), I began to flounder.

I was struggling with all the carrying, soothing, changing, feeding and playing. I felt like I needed to be ‘on’ all the time, and as my pain spiraled, I could no longer cope. I was reaching breaking point, depressed and finding it nearly impossible to manage my time, energy and pain.

At that point, when I realized I needed help, I was lucky to be pointed towards a pain management clinic. There, I was able to learn some useful pain-management tools that allowed me to get back on track. Today, I’m going to share some of my top strategies for parenting when you live with pain.

Knowledge is power

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Talk about it

What impact does chronic pain have on children?

My kids are a bit older now, but when they were young we were often careful about what was said around them regarding my pain, treatment options and medications.

Kids have this amazing ability to ignore a request, but hear a whispered inappropriate conversation (or the muffled unwrapping of snacks) from a few rooms away! If kids constantly overhear these conversations, they can start to take on these worries, and catastrophizing isn't good for anyone. However, including children in purposeful conversations about pain (with age appropriate explanations) can be helpful.

In my family, we have discussed how I best manage my pain and how I’m currently coping. Frank, honest conversations are also needed when it comes to setting boundaries. It's inevitable there will be times your kids might be disappointed that you can't attend an event or participate in something. However, if they know why, and (more importantly!) that it's nothing to do with them or your desire to be involved, they’ll understand.

No matter your pain levels, some of the simplest ways to express and share love don't require much physical effort at all. Asking about your kids' day when they get home from school, or a whispered I love you, can bring you closer together.

Get them involved

You might wonder how chronic pain affects family members. Perhaps you’re concerned that when your symptoms are high you can’t do as much around the house and need to lean on your children to do more. It’s okay.

Growing up, I had chores to do (although, being the youngest of five, I was very good at squirming my way out of them). With such a big family, we all needed to pull our weight and learn how to work together as a team to keep the household running.

I wanted my kids to learn these same lessons and pitch in too. I was also pretty motivated because I knew getting them involved in basic housework would mean less work for me in the long term. Of course you need to keep it age appropriate, but don't be fooled, younger kids can do things too! As young as two, children can put away their toys, set the table and fetch things for you.

Here is my never fail: “I bet you can’t run this to your room before I count to ten? One, two…” and off they’d run!

This worked every time (for my kids, when they were younger anyway). Once you find what works stick to it, until it doesn’t.

As kids change and grow, their expectations, abilities and involvement can expand. My eldest (15) has been cooking once a week for the family for the past few years. Sometimes you might even need to pull out the odd bribe (ahem, sorry I mean ‘incentive’). And don't forget, it's not just chores they can help with. A quick shoulder rub, running a bath, baking your favorite sweet treat…the possibilities are endless.

Another important way my kids help me is with their constant encouragement and support. Kids generally really want to be helpful – they love a job to do. And they make great cheerleaders!

Extra ideas and tips are always available on parenting blogs, especially for things like chore charts, weekly planners and more.

Get creative

In her book about living with pain called ‘Ten Pathways: A Framework for Redefining Happiness’, Fleur Chambers talks about how she and her family call her fibromyalgia ‘Teddy’.

When she has a flare or is finding her pain particularly challenging, they say ‘Teddy has come to visit’. I think this is great – reduces the stigma and worry that comes with a flare-up, and brings the family together to figure out a shared solution.

Creativity can also come in handy when you are trying to figure out a solution that will work for everyone. For example, your child wants you to take them to some fancy new play center but you’re having a challenging day and know the standing, sitting, driving involved with the outing will likely flare your pain. Instead, you could build a blanket fort in the living room, or spend some time exploring the backyard together. If finger painting is too hard due to the amount of clean up required, maybe they could paint with water outside? There is always an alternative that will work for everyone. Maybe your child can learn that hugs happen on the couch (because bending or lifting are challenging). This can then become a ritual that is unique to your family.

We have tickle fights in our family, it's a fun way to connect (and it happens easily enough while I’m lying down), they all just know that I just need to tap out after a few minutes.

Practice self care

In our house, we have a thing everyone understands called 'TTS' or Time To Self. If anyone needs a little time out, they request some TTS and that means everyone else steps back and gives them space.

From a young age my kids would entertain themselves while I took some TTS to complete necessary self-care tasks such as doing a meditation, stretching or a walk/exercise outside. If you’re after some ideas on ways to incorporate more energizing, helpful daily practices as part of your own TTS read our Top 5 Pain Management Techniques, According To Pain Science!

Self-care is an important practice to get into the habit of doing as a parent. Whether you live with pain or not, prioritizing time to look after yourself is always time well spent. Don’t forget the old adage that a healthy parent equals healthy kids.

If I don’t prioritize self-care (and for me this means attending to my pain self-management techniques), I will become an irritable parent with a pain flare, which isn’t fun for anyone!

Self care also relates to self compassion. Parenting is hard. Pain is hard. It's okay to acknowledge that you are dealing with both of these hard things, and give yourself a break! Treat yourself with kindness, as you would show to your children, friends or family members.

Self care also becomes important for those times we make mistakes – because we all make mistakes! When this happens, take a deep breath, apologize if you need to and move on. This also gives you the opportunity to model positive behavior. Kids need to see that parents are not perfect, not robots, and that we all make mistakes. It's what happens afterwards (actions and thoughts towards yourself and those we direct back to our kids) that makes all the difference.

Replace "am I a bad parent?" guilt with gratitude

Do you ever worry, "how can I be a good mum with fibromyalgia?" or "am I a good dad despite my chronic pain?"

Rest and pacing are important self-management tools. When pain flares, it is important to prioritize which tasks are necessary. If I’m having a particularly hard pain day, I will be gentle on myself and allow myself to “take things easy”.

Previously, during these flares, I would stress myself further during this (already) difficult time by piling on the mummy guilt, berating myself that "I should be playing with the kids" or "I should be doing some housework". I felt horrible that I couldn’t give them some fun experience because I needed to rest. Enter guilt and negative self-talk (which never help).

So now, instead I focus on gratitude. I’m grateful for the opportunity to snuggle with my children. I’m grateful to spend some quiet time with them reading. Rather than feel guilty for not doing something, I’m grateful for what I am able to do at that moment. But I will admit this is still an area of struggle for me – there will be days when I still feel I am a “bad mum” – perhaps this guilt is hardwired into us the day we give birth. However, it’s a good chance to gain perspective. One day is just a blip in their whole lives. And, don't forget, kids are pretty resilient, they’ll survive just as we do!

It’s also important to remember that as kids get older, their brains also start going over-thinking mode – they can experience guilt as well. It can be easy for them to link something they asked you to do with a flare-up or pain. Be reassuring and honest (that’s where talking about it helps!) so that they also don't get the ‘guilts’. Can they flip the situation into gratitude as well?

Mindfulness

Young kids provide an excellent example of mindfulness practice. They almost always live in the present moment.

When they are young, there is little room in their developing brains for worry, rehashing past mistakes, and the stress that comes along with it. They are all about the here and now. Sometimes it’s good to take their lead – get down to their level, play together and be in the moment. This type of mindfulness can produce wonder, joy, and genuine connection.

Teachable moments

Parenting is a big responsibility – this little malleable mind is yours to mold!

Managing my pain on a daily basis teaches my kids what it means to invest in your health. Living well while self managing persistent pain takes strength and discipline. I am modelling to them that I am able to take control of my health. In the future, if they face health challenges, I want them to know that they too have the ability to get through it.

But at the same time, I want my kids to know that life can sometimes be hard. Or, as they like to say, life isn’t always rainbows and unicorns. I want them to be aware that people struggle with stuff, no one is perfect. So, I’m hoping they learn a little empathy along the way too.

Research backs this up. Children with parents with ongoing pain self-report higher levels of empathy towards others. The same review also found some other positives in growing up with a parent experiencing chronic pain – these kids felt that they were more independent and had a better understanding of health and coping strategies.

Motivation

Kids are so precious. And, as Ferris Bueller says, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” You only need to talk to parents of older children and they’ll tell you that the time just flies so try your best to enjoy every moment.

Making sure you are there with your kids every step of the way is pretty good motivation to take control of your pain. Indeed, one study that looked at people who lived well with chronic pain found that caring for others was a key protective factor – it reduced the negative impact of pain on people's lives. So, even if they drive me crazy some of the time, I wouldn't change my kids for the world!

And so all the work you do to manage pain is worth it so that you can show up, on your best days and your worst days, to be there for them, just as you are.

“We’re all imperfect parents, and that’s perfectly okay. Tiny humans need connection, not perfection.”
-LR Knost

Are you parenting with pain? Do you have any hot tips to share? Why not get in touch with us or join the 'Living well with fibromyalgia' Facebook community where we share tips, solutions and strategies for living well with pain.