Helping Kids Cope
Family support from even the youngest members has a tremendous effect on the healing.
The more the family rallies around the parent who is physically or emotionally injured, the better both may do. Even when the outcome is unknown and reassurance is hard to give, your child will thrive on the chance to be hopeful. Helping kids deal with change together this way will ensure they are coping in the best way possible.
Manage the information given to your child
- There may be very little information available at first. Don’t give false assurances if you don’t know, but do be reassuring: “Mom has been injured. The good thing is that she’s at a hospital now with doctors who know how to take care of her. They are working hard to help her get better.”
- Do your best to manage your own anxiety and to protect your child from information he doesn’t need. Keeping in mind how to manage anxiety in children, think through what you’re going to say to him before you say it, as well as what you’re going to say during family phone calls. It might help to talk with a friend, parent, advisor, doctor, or clergyperson.
- As time passes, keep communicating, and update your child as appropriate. Although it’s important to be careful with the amount of information you offer your child, do try to talk with him about what is happening. Remember, your child’s imagination will fill in any hole, and that may be far more troubling than reality. Offer hope: “It may take a while before we know everything, but our family will get through this together.”
Create a sense of security
- During this time, your family’s usual activities may be disrupted. Make sure that at least some familiar routines are followed consistently.
- If your child is going to be staying with relatives or friends for any period of time, suggest that she take a beloved object, such as a favorite blanket, toy, book, or T-shirt. This will give her a greater sense of security.
- In talking to your child about coping with injury, assure him that his parent’s injury is not his or anyone’s fault. It’s just something that can happen with this kind of job.
Determine the best time to visit
- Consult with medical and support staff about the appropriate time for your child to see his injured parent. This will depend on his developmental level and emotional maturity. Get help on how to prepare your child for his parent’s appearance. He will need to know in advance about tubes, machines, bandages, and so forth, as well as the fact that there will be other injured service members nearby. The recuperating parent may look and/or act very differently from the one he remembers.
- If a visit is appropriate, don’t force touches and hugs, which may be scary at first. Let your child set a comfortable pace.
- Maybe your child can’t visit his injured parent yet, but he can stay in touch by drawing pictures for his parent, offering a stuffed animal to put on the hospital bed, or recording a song to share.
After the initial reunion, new issues can arise during the recovery process.
Once the service member is stable and the recovery process is underway, new issues will arise. Help your child understand that this can be a long process. Say: “It’s a long road, but we’ll get through it, one step at a time.”
Encourage your child to ask questions
- Encourage your child to ask questions about the injury: “Does it hurt?” “Are you a robot with superpowers (in the case of a prosthetic device)?” “Will Dad always have trouble talking or remembering things?” “Will a new leg grow back?” Show your child how the prosthesis or wheelchair works. Most children are curious and adaptable. Take advantage of that quality!
- In the process of coping with injury, your child may ask, “Is Mom going to get better?” You can say: “Some very good doctors are working hard to help her get better. You’re helping, too! It’s going to take some time and some hard work, and we may need to learn to do some things a new way. But we’ll all work together as a family.”
- Try to find a happy medium between protecting your child and acknowledging the difficult reality of what he is experiencing. “Yes, your dad is different, but he’s still Dad. He still loves you.” Teaching children about change is important. Acknowledge what has changed, but also stress what hasn’t. Remind your child: “We were a strong family before, and we’ll be a strong family again. We’ll all heal together.”
- Give your child a “kissing hand.” Kiss the center of her palm. Then fold her fingers over the spot you kissed. Tell the child the kiss will stick, even when it’s washed. When she puts her hand to her cheek, the kiss will spread love all through her body, reminding her she’s loved–and that will never change.
Let your child help with therapy!
- Getting your child involved in therapy may ease her fears while helping her reconnect with the parent who is injured.
- Even a very young child may be able to offer a sip of water or clap for a first step taken. He can send an encouraging message with the We Are Proud of You printable, decorate a prosthetic with photos, or add a personalized plate to a wheelchair: “Mom on Wheels!”
Learn helpful, hopeful ways to deal with limitations and grow as a family.
As the injured parent continues to rehabilitate, your family is learning hopeful ways of moving forward and is starting to make long-term plans. Encourage your child to view such changes as part of a journey and as a way for your family to continue to grow together.
Explain that the process isn’t over yet
- You can say: “Getting better can take a long time.” In many cases, therapy will be ongoing, doctors and medicines may continue to be part of everyday life, and there may be additional hospital stays.
Maintain some old routines and establish new ones together
- As the situation changes, you may have to adjust your old routines. When possible, introduce changes a little at a time. Keeping big changes to a minimum, especially at first, will give your child a greater sense of stability. Involving him in the creation of new routines might help him feel more in control as well.
- Just because a parent has been injured doesn’t mean that everything has to change. A parent in a wheelchair can still play tag in the park on Saturdays or basketball after school. And a parent who has lost an arm can still help with homework or offer a hug! Ask your child for ideas about new ways of doing old things.
- Now that everyone is home again, you may need to reassign responsibilities. Take care not to make your child feel as if he’s being demoted. Stress that you can all continue to share in everyday activities, but in a different way. After the readjustments, come up with some special, new family routines: Perhaps at the end of the week, each family member can tell about “the best thing of the week.” Or, your family can enjoy a session of weekend stargazing with a cup of cocoa or lemonade in hand. Do things that will bring you together!
- Encourage your child to share his recent accomplishments and newly acquired skills with the returned parent. Maybe your young child has learned to hop or get dressed by himself. Maybe your older child hit her first home run or received an “A” on a math test. Enjoy these successes together. In the same spirit, your child can cheer when the injured parent masters a new skill or relearns a task.
Invisible injuries can be the hardest injuries for children to understand.
Invisible injuries are the hardest injuries for children to understand. Why does a parent seem angry? Or sad? Why does he forget things or just seem “out of it”? It’s crucial to find a way to explain these changes to your children in ways they can understand.
Explain the injury to your child
- Explain that sometimes injuries are invisible, the way a stomachache is: The hurt is inside. When you look at the person, you can’t see the hurt, but it’s there.
- Help your child understand that the injury may change the way his injured parent feels, talks, and acts. Everything from forgetfulness to anger and frustration to sleepiness can be symptoms of this invisible injury.
- You may also need to explain a parent’s immobility or non-responsiveness: “The doctors want Dad to rest,” or “This medicine helps Dad get well, but it also makes him sleepy.”
Validate your child’s feelings and efforts
- Validate your child’s confusion, and make sure that he knows he is not to blame. For example, you can say: “I know Mom isn’t smiling as much, but she still loves you.”
- Praise your child’s strength, bravery, and helpfulness, but let him express his fears, too.
Set up a place for quiet time
- The returning parent may not remember some things. He may be irritable and emotionally unavailable. Offer reassurance: “Dad needs some quiet time to think about things.” Make sure there are relaxing places in your home, outside, or elsewhere, where the returning parent (or anyone else in the family) can go to take a break.
Helpful links related to Injuries