The Balancing Act of Parenthood with Chronic Pain
Be your best as a parent despite the complications of chronic pain.
Posted September 8, 2021 | Reviewed by Chloe Williams
- Having a parent with chronic pain is tied to some negative outcomes, but it can also help children develop independence, empathy and compassion.
- Strategies for parenting with chronic pain include being intentional and present with a child and using time-based pacing to avoid flare-ups.
- Tips also include appropriately communicating boundaries, leaning on support from others, being kind to oneself and focusing on the positive.
As if parenting is not challenging enough, when you add chronic pain to the equation it can feel overwhelming. For many, being a parent with pain was not part of the plan. You may have had an injury or developed a chronic pain condition while kids were younger or teens, making it even more difficult to contend with school adjustments and hormonal shifts. For others, painful symptoms may have been present and factored into your baby plans. Perhaps you considered how to physically manage or hold newborns, babies, or toddlers, and have had to be creative in figuring out ways to play with your children.
While almost all parents struggle with feeling good enough, those with pain often face an elevated sense of guilt about their limitations within the family. Spouses may have to do more, grandparents relied on routinely, or even older children adopting caretaking roles.
Unfortunately, some of the research studying the impact of parental chronic pain can be disheartening. Offspring of those with chronic pain may be at risk of poorer outcomes. A systematic review and meta-analysis found that children and adolescents of parents with pain are at higher risk for pain complaints themselves, as well as poorer scores on general health measures and psychological outcomes. One study revealed that some adolescents who grew up with a mother or father in pain felt that their parents were less involved and more likely to be irritable and unpredictable. This led to hiding more of their needs and experiences as they did not want to add more stress to their parents’ lives.
Fortunately, there is also information across studies suggesting there are positive outcomes associated with having a parent with chronic pain including developing independence, developing compassion and empathy, and learning about health and coping.
While parents with chronic pain have much to juggle, all want their children to feel secure, supported, and loved. And that is what children need. The truth is that everyone is dealing with a different set of circumstances as a parent and there is no right way to do it. Thankfully, there are some underlying principles that may help give kids what they need in addition to strategies that may ease the stress of parenting with pain. Give yourself permission to do it the way that works best for you – you don’t have to parent the same way your neighbor or your sister does.
Tips for Being a SuperParent with Pain
Give time and attention: What children want is this – your time and your attention. Since they are sharing that space with pain (as well as many of the other routine things that occupy us), it is especially important to be intentional and present with them.
Communicate while being mindful of boundaries: Explain the pain condition in terms that are reasonable for the level of understanding, maturity, and needs of the child. Detail depends on the age of the child… but no matter the age, we do not want to increase worry. Keep in mind the practical translation of information shared: How will this help my children better understand limitations? How much detail is needed for them to comprehend without being panicked? What will be helpful for them to know?
Plan ahead: Use strategies such as time-based pacing when you engage in activities to avoid overdoing it – if your child has a soccer game tonight, bring a chair so sitting is possible, or consider how you will thoughtfully approach a big day out with the family. This is critical in feeling well today as well as the next day so you can be present with your family without a pain flare-up.
Let others help: Many family members and friends really do want to help but they may not know how. And there are many other ways to relieve the burden of day-to-day stresses by leaning on community support. Consider:
- Optimizing division of labor in your home – if mornings are the most challenging, perhaps your significant other, babysitter/nanny, or parent can take the AM shift while you focus on afternoons or evenings. Since sleep is even more important to those with pain, with a newborn perhaps your spouse can take night feedings, or if resources allow, a night nurse can cover overnight feedings.
- Using a meal service or cleaning service if that is feasible given your financial resources to remove pressure from within the household for those tasks.
- Letting your friends take yours with theirs – being able to play together is a mutual benefit and likely helps her/him as much as you and your family, plus the kids have more fun.
Provide reassurance: Your children love you and want to be seen, heard, and loved themselves. You can offer that, so make sure they know it.
Be gentle with yourself: Almost everyone has an idea of what they “should” be as a parent and guilt over where and how they fall short. Remember to go easy on yourself and not make self-criticism work against your ability to generate closeness.
Focus on the positive: There is a lot you can do despite pain. Even when you may not be able to participate in a hands-on way, you may still be able to be present and supportive in a variety of other ways. Be creative and offer what you can to your children; they are surely grateful to have you and you can all take pleasure in evolving the relationship.
Parenting takes patience, fortitude, and compassion, and it is one of the most rewarding things on the planet. Don’t let chronic pain prevent you from having a strong relationship with your children – there is so much love and understanding flowing between you, capitalize on that and take it one day at a time.
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), 2256–2266. https://doi.org/10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000293
Umberger, W., Martsolf, D., Jacobson, A., Risko, J., Patterson, M., & Calabro, M. (2013). The Shroud: Ways Adolescents Manage Living With Parental Chronic Pain: Adolescents and Parental Chronic Pain. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 45(4), 344–354. https://doi.org/10.1111/jnu.12037
Murphy, J., & Rafie, S. (2021). Chronic Pain and Opioid Management: Strategies for Integrated Treatment. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.