Coach Your Child Through Tough Times with Arthritis
Juvenile arthritis can pose challenges, but these strategies can help ease your child’s anxiety during difficult times.
By Robyn Abree
Helping your child thrive with juvenile arthritis (JA) requires preparing him or her for the uncertainty and challenges it can bring. Use these strategies to help your child cope and problem-solve during difficult times.
Manage Your Stress First
It’s normal to feel anxious when your child experiences setbacks from JA, like flares or having to take extra precautions during virus outbreaks, like the coronavirus. But it’s important to remember that your child is watching. “If you’re watching the news and visibly tensing up, your child is going to take cues from you, and mirror that behavior,” says Skyler Hamilton, PhD, LMHC and owner of Healing Passages Counseling Services in Orlando, Fl. That’s why it’s so important to set boundaries with your children and schedule “do not disturb time” for self-care, even if it’s just for ten minutes, she says. Hamilton suggests making a sign and putting in on your door when you need alone time.
Giving yourself the space to do a relaxing activity you enjoy, or even just to cry when you feel overwhelmed, will help you manage your emotions so you can better care for your child. Setting up strict “self-care time” also models positive coping strategies for children, says Hamilton. When you make time to care for yourself, they do too. Learn about more stress-busting activities the whole family can enjoy here.
Get Your Child’s Input
During stressful times, it’s tempting to take over and tell your child everything to do to keep healthy. For children older than five, that can be counterproductive and make them less likely to follow advice, says Hamilton. Instead, give your child an opportunity to weigh in on the situation. “Children take care of themselves better when they are able to give input,” says she says. “Giving them a sense of control is a part of the solution.”
Hearing about COVID-19 and needing to stay home for a month or more can make a child anxious. When anxiety strikes, ask your child how he or she is feeling – and really listen. “For example, if your child tells you she’s scared, the last thing you want to do is to tell her that she shouldn’t be,” says Hamilton. That will only create more shame and anxiety around the situation.
Instead, validate your child’s emotions, but then direct your child to a place of empowerment by asking follow-up questions, like “Do you have any thoughts about how you can help yourself feel safer in this situation?” or “Perhaps you could tell me some actions you can take to keep yourself healthy?”
Once you and your child figure out what those steps are, encourage your child to write them down and put them in a place that makes them easy to see every day – like the fridge. It’s important, though, that you help your child make a list full of “Do’s” instead of “Don’ts.” A list of things your child can’t do will make them less likely to follow through.
Ask Your Child to Think Like a Superhero
When thinking of solutions with children, there’s evidence that having them pretend to be their favorite superhero can help. “Thinking of themselves as a superhero can help children gain distance from their problems and think more objectively about them,” says Ethan Kross, PhD, professor of psychology and director of the Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan. This is the idea behind “self-distancing,” a strategy coined by Kross and his colleagues, which gets people to look at problems from an objective point of view.
It also gets children to think about the traits that make superheroes so resilient to challenges and adopt them as their own. Kross calls this “the Batman effect,” after a trend he observed in a study where children performed various difficult tasks. When children became frustrated, Kross and his colleagues asked children to pretend they were Batman. Instead of asking themselves, “Why am I doing this?” they would ask, “Why is Batman doing this?” Children who referred to themselves as Batman were more likely to follow-through with challenging tasks, says Kross. This technique may be too childish for older children and teens, so Kross advises them to adopt the same self-distancing strategies for adults.
Challenge Your Child to Think Ahead
Another self-distancing strategy that may be helpful for children is temporal distancing. This involves getting children to think how they’ll feel once the crisis is over. For example, if your child is worried about catching the coronavirus, get him or her to think about how it’ll feel when normal life resumes and a vaccine exists, says Dr. Kross.
In times of uncertainty, it can also be helpful to get children to think about past challenges where they made it out fine, he says.
An example of this strategy might look something like this: “[Insert you child’s name], you went through a bad flare three years ago. You made it through then, and you can make it through this now. Think about how you’ll feel on our next vacation, when we’re at the beach playing in the sand!”
These kinds of pep talks, where you use your child’s past accomplishments to look to the future, can help your child adopt a “can-do” mindset, says Dr. Kross. Your child knows he’s capable of overcoming the current challenge, because he’s done something like it before.
Juvenile arthritis can be present challenges, but these techniques can you and your child can persevere. Having a strong support network for you and your family can also help. The Live Yes! Arthritis Network includes a virtual community of families and parents like you, ready to support you in your times of need. For more information, visit arthritis.org/liveyes, and for even more ways to help tame your family’s anxiety during tough times with JA, click here.