Help Your Child Manage Everyday Anxieties

Learn ways to help your child with JA cope with these common challenges.

Kids with juvenile arthritis (JA) cope daily with the challenges of accepting and adapting to their always-changing bodies, emotions and health. Often, what they want most – and worry about a lot – is fitting in, says Julia Kim, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City who works with kids with JA.

“They want to be like everyone else, which can be very difficult when your body aches and basic daily functioning can be an effort,” says Kim. “Playing, sports and other extra-curricular activities may need to be altered for a child with JA, which to a child means ‘not being like everyone else.’”

Here’s Kim’s advice for helping your child with some of the everyday anxieties that come along with being a kid with JA:

Having Friends

 In their need to be accepted and part of a group, kids are not much different than grownups. But children, says Kim, are still learning to appreciate who they are as individuals and how their individuality makes them special. In addition, JA’s unpredictability can mean it’s hard to make and keep plans, and children may also struggle to keep up with their friends.

Parents should encourage their children to be with other kids while helping them learn to adapt to their capabilities to the moment at hand.

“Parents can help by empowering their child to pay attention to their bodies to learn what it’s telling them, and by encouraging them, when needed, to participate with their peers in a modified way. This allows them to be with friends, but not exacerbate pain,” she says. “This might include taking part, but taking frequent breaks, for example.”

Doing Well In School

Getting to school on time, carrying books and backpacks, managing pain and having the energy to stay focused in class can ratchet up anxiety for kids with JA. “Schools and teachers may be uneducated about a child’s JA and may interpret these signs as not doing well for behavioral or emotional – rather than physical – reasons,” says Kim.

It’s critical for parents to educate teachers and school staff about their child’s arthritis and individual needs to help prevent any potential stigma, she says.

“Parents can work with teachers and the school to modify a child’s academic program,” she says. “This could include not penalizing a child for absences and tardiness and establishing ways to make-up work, having duplicate books at home [so kids don’t have to carry home heavy books] and monitoring a child’s physical needs throughout the day.”

Depending on how their day is going, for example, kids with JA might need to take short breaks to stand up and stretch or additional time or other modification for writing tasks.

Playing Sports

Bringing arthritis under good control often means kids with JA can safely take part in many sports, but sometimes they can’t do everything their friends can – or everything they want. And flares can mean sitting out some activities. Kids may be more stressed about missing out on sports than parents, who, understandably, often focus on their child’s safety and physical needs.

Help your child understand their arthritis and what cause their flares and explain in age-appropriate language why certain sports – running, for example – might not be good for their joints, says Kim.

“This is a trial and error process, and parents cannot completely shelter their child from pain, but they can help their child find sports that may suit their bodies better and yet allow them to belong to a group,” she says. “It’s important to empathize with your child. They need to feel understood, cared for, and guided.”

Getting Along With Sibilings

When one sibling has a chronic medical condition like JA, others may feel they’re being “punished” or restricted if their activities have to change to accommodate their brother or sister. This can cause bad feelings between siblings and insecurity for the child with JA, says Kim.

“Families can benefit if parents talk about JA freely with all children together. Education is key – but in a manner that doesn’t make the affected child feel something is ‘wrong’ with them,” she says. “The goal is to remove the scary, unknown aspect of JA and educate the entire family about how this is part of one’s life. Everyone should feel special and loved for who they are, not what they have.”
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