Helping Your Child Deal With Physical Pain

Sarah Ong Aware Parenting, Blog Leave a Comment

A2 was 2.5 years old when she started pre-school with A1. Each time I pick them up, they would be so excited for Mama and forgot to bring their bags along. This was a norm.

One day, A2 wanted to show me how strong she was to carry her bag AND her sister’s bag. But she missed a step and accidentally kicked her toe onto the sliding door railing at the bottom. This caused massive pain and her big toe bled slightly. Of course she cried hard from that.

I couldn’t do any listening at that point because I wanted to make sure it didn’t bleed out of control. I was more concerned of the medical attention it needed. Turned out, it was a small cut but she seemed terrified and in so much pain.

I wanted to get both girls home as quickly and safely as I could. She cried the whole way back. I was still not in a position to listen with empathy and support because my focus was on driving.

She stopped crying as soon as we got home. So we continued with our day as usual.

A week later, it was time to clip their finger and toe nails. We started with A1. When it was A2’s turn, she had this horrified look on her face and started crying loudly. By now her wound had completely healed and I had forgotten about that incident. I didn’t understand it at first why all of a sudden she was fearful of clipping her toenails.

I still didn’t make that connection so I ended up not clipping hers.

Another week passed. It was time for nail clipping again. And again, she looked terrified and started crying and crying.

Only then it occurred to me that she was still not completely healed from that toe bleeding experience!

Any attempt to go close to her toes would trigger the past experience and she would start crying. Once I realised this, we went back to that day and I listened with empathy that I couldn’t do for her when it happened.

I said, “You seem scared.. do you remember the pain again when I mention your toes?”

She sobbed and nodded.

I continued, “You really wanted to show me how strong you were to carry two bags at the same time, but you tripped and hurt your toe. It was so painful and you were so scared about how painful it was.”

She continued to nod in between her sobs.

“You cried and cried so hard. Mama couldn’t hold you while you cried. I’m so sorry, sayang. I’m right here now. Let’s hear your cry now.”

Upon hearing this ‘permission’ and feeling my deep presence for her, she cried HARD.

After a long hard cry in my arms, her body relaxed. I touched her feet but she didn’t have any strong reaction. Then she said, “Mama cut my toenails now.”

And we did it! In peace, with her lying on the bed and letting me do it. She let out a few giggles and said it was a little ticklish. I see this as her way of releasing her fears through those giggles, and not so much about her toes feeling tickled.

Our child will try to show us many times their own way of healing from past experience that had been painful, stressful, fearful or traumatic. So the crying again, does not always mean it is a bad thing. It’s one of the ways they need to do, to heal from these experiences.

Sometimes the fear from the pain is greater than the pain itself. She couldn’t do the healing she needed to do when I was driving back. Yes she stopped crying and seemed to have “forgotten” about it. But repressed feelings won’t go away. They will try to come out whenever they are triggered.

Fast forward to 5 years old, she attended an outdoor birthday party. She tripped and fell on the pavement. I was not with her as she was running around with A1 and some friends.

She had scratches on her knee and her elbow.

She came to me, looking alarmed at first and she couldn’t say anything. She pointed to her leg.

The minute I saw her wound, I acknowledged it and asked if she was okay. She burst into tears.

I got it cleaned up and then she sat on my lap as she cried. She cried hard.

People started getting curious. Children swarmed around, concerned about what had happened to her.

I didn’t use any distraction or bribes. I said, “Oh baby… you are in such pain.. it stings so much.. you want it to go away..” and I hugged her the entire time.

This went on a few minutes. Some parents came and showed empathy. Some said it happened to their daughter recently and she was so drama she couldn’t walk after the fall. Uh.. ouch.. again I don’t enjoy hearing labels. I just smiled.

Once she was done crying, she told me she wanted to get down and play with her friends again. And she went on playing happily like she never had the wound. She would forget and rubbed her knee and elbow against something and got reminded of it, but she was really careful after that.

Has any of these situations happened to your child?

Do you notice that sometimes they cry much longer after the cause of pain has happened?

This might be caused by two reasons:
1) They might not necessarily cry only from the physical pain but it might also involveemotional pain: confusion, anger at the interruption, grief about the loss of play time, or fear of it happening again.

2) The physical injury is also used as a pretext to release past stored-up tensions and painful feelings. They are simply using the occasion to catch up with crying that they have not been allowed to do since birth.

Children never cry more than necessary. When pain from an injury has been fully felt and expressed (or finished releasing pent up feelings) the child will learn how to be more careful and protect themselves in the future.

It is extremely distressing for any parent to see their child in pain, and it is natural to want to do everything within their power to stop the pain. The spontaneous response of a child is to quickly look for her mom to get physically close and cry needs to happen. To stop or interrupt this process will not allow the child’s pain to disappear quicker. She needs to cry and process this pain and fear as much as needed, and the pain will go away at its own accord.

It is so unfortunate in our culture that when a male child cries in physical pain, he is expected to suck it up, man up and don’t complain about the pain. “Oh don’t cry.. you’re a strong boy.” As if to play down the injury so that he feels less pain and stop crying.

This usually comes from a place of fear that parents are teaching their child to be a cry-baby or become weak by “giving in” to small pain. Crying is not an indication of weakness. It can be used to manage pain much better than to not let them cry.

I wonder how you feel after reading this?

I wonder if you find yourself reflecting to a time your child got hurt and how he reacted to the pain? And I wonder how you felt and responded to his reaction to pain.

Does this help give you a reframe and how best you can support your child with physical pain?

This may not sound like it’s related to sleep to you, but believe me, everything that happens during the day has a profound impact on the way your child sleeps at night.

I enjoy writing parenting topics like this because it helps me reflect on my own personal experience and journey using Aware Parenting philosophy. And how all our child’s experiences are so deeply linked to one another.