Small injuries are big opportunities to help build resilient kids.
Falls, tumbles, bonks, and slips are inescapable hazards of childhood. Reasonable safety measures like bike helmets are always a good idea, but it’s impossible to protect kids from all the injuries that result from a combination of clumsiness and gravity. After all, head-to-toe bubble wrap just isn’t great for physical and social development. And a fall really is an opportunity to gain some resilience — if you have an adult around who knows what to say. Fortunately, a new study published in the European Journal of Pain gives parents some ideas on how to best communicate with their kids when they experience everyday pain or injury.
For the new study, researchers interviewed 18 experts — including educators, parents, and specialists in pediatric pain, trauma, and child development — about key messages and strategies that parents should consider when communicating with kids between the ages of 2 and 7 about pain, to promote recovery, resilience, and adaptive pain behaviors. The participants reached an 80% consensus threshold on a whopping 187 items for caregivers to consider.
But we don’t have all day, or unlimited brain space. So, with those points distilled into a few major themes, here are four things to keep in mind after a minor injury gets your kid’s tears flowing.
Model Calmness For Your Kid
Panic isn’t contagious in the same way a virus is, but it can create a powerful feedback loop as kids intuitively pick up on how adults around them respond to a situation. On the flip side, parents can also help their kids stay calm by staying calm themselves, but that’s tricky to do when your child is in distress.
“Parents and caretakers have a huge impact on that child’s response and understanding of what’s happening in their world,” says study lead Sarah Wallwork, Ph.D., a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of South Australia. “We see this explicitly with toddlers, where often their first response to the many unfamiliar situations they face will be to look at their parent or the adult that is around them, and often they’ll feed off their response.”
So don’t panic. Because if your child panics, it will make the whole situation a lot harder to deal with.
Validate Your Child’s Pain
Kids tend to overreact to small injuries, but don’t put them down because of it. Ignoring their pain isn’t going to make it go away, and saying “rub some dirt on it” or “suck it up” reinforces the unhealthy notion that kids should suppress negative feelings and emotions.
“It’s really important that we validate children’s experiences,” Wallwork says. “Whether it’s a painful physical experience, or whether they’re experiencing painful emotions, it’s important to get down to their level and let them know that we hear them and we want to get through this painful experience with them.”
It’s very possible that a child who seems inconsolable needs more emotional reassurance than they do physical pain management; they may be freaking out not because they’re badly hurt, but because of the shock of getting hurt at all. Falls from bikes are scary, for instance, so fear might be the driving force behind their crying after they take a corner too fast and wipe out, especially if you don’t see any significant scrapes.
Listening to kids can tip adults off to what types of reassurance and support are most appropriate in a given situation. Often the most calming thing a parent can provide for a hurting child is physical touch. “Tactile reassurance when kids experience pain can be as important as comforting words. A cuddle or hug reinforces that you are there and that you care about them,” Wallwork says.
Build Helpful Language Around Pain
Two conventional understandings of pain that Wallwork finds unhelpful are that pain is bad and that pain is commensurate with injury. Rather, she frames everyday pain as a signal to heed but not get panicked by it.
“Pain is there to protect us,” she says. “We experience pain if our brain decides that we need protecting in that context. And sometimes, the amount of tissue damage will strongly influence how much pain we’re feeling. But sometimes it won’t.”
Consider the example of a child who gets sand in their eye while playing at the beach. That one tiny grain can hurt tremendously, even if it’s not causing much damage. It’s easy to see how a child could perceive the situation as catastrophic, while an adult would know that the entire ordeal is common and typically passes quickly. But instead of telling the child that they should settle down because it’s not a big deal, a better option would be to say something like, “I hate getting sand in my eye. It hurts super bad. Your body is really trying to tell you that sand doesn’t belong there, and so it needs to get out to protect your eye.”
Not only has the intensity of the child’s experience been validated, but you’ve reframed what the pain is communicating in a much less ruinous way than your kid may have initially thought. And you’ve laid the groundwork that will hopefully make them more open to constructive solutions like trying to relax the eye so that tears can wash the sand out or receiving eye drops to help the process along.
Shift The Focus To Healing
When Wallwork talks about pain with her kids, she tries to remind them that they’re good healers and active participants in their healing. “There’s this societal attitude that we go to the doctor to get fixed, and then we move on,” she says. “But in reality, it doesn’t usually work that way. I go to the doctor or the physical therapist so that they can give me the tools to help myself. It’s really important that we try and translate that understanding to kids so that they are an active component of their recovery.”
It can take some kids a while to settle down following a bonk or scrape. Don’t push your message while they’re in a frenzy. Instead, emphasize healing and empowerment when they’ve calmed down — and even in the days following the initial incident.
“I remind kids that their bodies are wonderful at healing. We can encourage kids that once we’ve put a Band-Aid over a wound, they can continue playing, and it’ll heal overnight,” Wallwork says. “And when it’s time to take off the Band-Aid, I’ll point out how much healing they’ve done. Or I’ll emphasize how cool it is that they have a scab because it’s their body’s way of protecting the wound on its own. Anything to reassure them that they can do this themselves.”
Parents can also encourage kids to help wash their scrapes or put on their own Band-Aids. And if that’s too much for the child, bring them in on a plan to care for them. That’s much preferable to deceiving the kid or using sleight of hand to move their attention away from the wound care. You can try and distract them, but come clean about it. “Be honest and explain that if we can try and distract them from the cleaning, they’re likely to have less discomfort from it,” Wallwork says.