Although we still have much to discover about how families respond to injury and trauma, as a pediatrician and mother I know that members of the same family can have very different reactions when a parent is injured. Whether it's a broken leg caused by a motor vehicle crash or a back injury from overuse, the impact of your injury for your child goes beyond the physical.
Any change in routine can be stressful, and your child may feel upset, jumpy, or worried at times. This is normal. Dealing with a sudden event and seeing mom or dad injured can be difficult for your child to accept. When your family's day-to-day life is disrupted by an injury, be patient and give your child time to adjust. Provide reassurance that you are doing all you can to get better.
Understanding your child's reactions to your injury and helping him or her respond in a healthy way can prevent early traumatic stress reactions from becoming persistent symptoms. Children of injured parents experience more posttraumatic stress symptoms and a lessened health-related quality of life than children of uninjured parents, according to a recent study from the University of Washington of families treated at a regional trauma center. This is true for both injured children and children not injured. Unfortunately, the uninjured children were more likely to report PTSD symptoms five months after their parent's injury.
Here are some tips to help your child adjust in a healthy way when a parent is injured:
Meet you own needs first. Like they say on the plane, in the event of an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask first before putting one on your child. In this case, get the emotional and psychological support you might need so that you can take care of yourself and be strong for your child. It is best not to burden your child with your emotional symptoms, regardless of how mature your child is. This might require you to seek out professional help. Ask your doctor for advice if your traumatic stress symptoms are getting in the way of your normal functioning or go on for more than one month.
Promote understanding. A parent's injury can often be confusing and scary. Kids have active imaginations and can often get the wrong idea about what is happening. Ask questions to figure out what your child knows and share information in clear, age-appropriate ways.
Share feelings. There are many ways to share feelings, and you know your child best. It often helps when a child can name his or her emotions – negative and positive - through conversation, drawing, or telling a story. Your child might feel many things: sad, scared, angry, guilty, worried, relieved you are safe now. Ask and really listen, even if it's hard for you to hear.
Accept help. From getting you a new bandage for your injured knee to bringing you a glass of water for your next pain medication, your child wants to be involved in your care. Be sure to give thanks with lots of hugs and encouragement.
Keep to everyday routines. Try to maintain some regular routines, such as movie night, to help things feel more normal at home. Other routines, such as story time at the local library, might now have to be adapted and held at home. Ask for help from other family members or friends to keep meals, activities, bed time, and chores as usual as possible. With some regular routines still in place, your child will know what to expect.
Define the 'new normal.' Sometimes your injury means that you cannot do what you usually do, like giving a bath or providing a ride to the game, and that's okay. Enlist friends or family members to take on these roles and let your child know who will be helping and why.
Share your situation, where appropriate. You may want to talk to your child's teacher and other important adults to let them know what is happening with you and to encourage them to call you with any changes in your child's behavior.
For more information, my colleagues and I translated more than a decade of research into an award-winning website, AfterTheInjury.org, to help you assist your child in coping with a family injury.