When parents are immobilised due to an injury, children feel distressed and insecure. How can you help your child cope with difficult emotions and get on with life, when something like this happens?
By Aruna Raghuram
That day began like any other. In the midst of getting my four-year-old son, Rahul, ready for school and preparing breakfast, I realised that there were no tomatoes in the fridge. But, that wasn't a problem. There was a vegetable vendor just outside the gate of our apartment complex gate. All I needed was a few minutes to dash out to the shop.
So, I rushed down the stairs, wiping my hands on a napkin. But before I even knew what was happening, I found myself slumped on the floor, in pain. I had missed a step and fallen down the last couple of stairs.
Hearing me cry out, my husband Sushant, came rushing to my aid. He took me to the hospital where an x-ray was taken. Afterwards, I was wheeled into the doctor's cabin, Sushant in tow. Looking at the x-ray and trying to sound encouraging, the doctor said, "Six weeks is all you need to get back on your feet again. But, until then, you need to rest and take things easy."
After the cast was applied, we returned home — to find Rahul sitting on the sofa, worried and bewildered. One look at him and I knew I had to reassure my son. Despite being in a lot of pain, I smiled at Rahul, called him over and hugged him tight.
To a child, a parent is not only a caretaker but also someone who is strong and knows what to do in any situation. It never occurs to a child that his parent can ever be helpless. So, when the parent is immobilised as a result of an injury or an accident, the child feels unsure and scared.
It was the first time Rahul saw me, his mother, rendered immobile and needing help with almost everything. This made him feel anxious and confused. I realised that my husband and I had to help my son cope with the situation.
Here are the six things we did together to put Rahul's life back on track again:
Observed behaviour: A child may feel and react differently from adults after a stressful event — he may also find it difficult to express what he is going through. A child suffering from post-traumatic stress might throw tantrums or revert to old habits like thumb-sucking or bed-wetting. In Rahul’s case, he became quiet and withdrawn. His sleep was disturbed and he started being fuss about eating his food.
Explained the situation: Both Sushant and I spoke to Rahul about my fall and subsequent injury. We explained to him that I was in pain and would have to be on bed rest for six weeks. But, that I would be back to my normal routine once the prescribed period was over. We emphasised to Rahul that he wasn't responsible for what happened to me. We did this because it is common for young children to think that they are in some way, responsible.
Encouraged communication: I knew my child might be on an emotional roller coaster — feeling sad, scared, angry, guilty, worried and relieved that I am safe now. I did not tell him to not be sad or worried. Instead, I tried to get him to talk and share his feelings. I told him that he could do so through a story or by drawing what's on his mind. I encouraged him to ask questions about anything that distressed him. Since he might be worried that he too could get injured somehow, I explained to him how to be careful and avoid such accidental falls.
Accepted help: Rahul wanted to be involved in my care. So, I would ask him to do simple chores for me like fetching me a glass of water or, a napkin to wipe my face. I thanked him with a hug every time he helped. I also appreciated him for being quiet and allowing me to rest whenever I needed to.
Talked to his teachers: Sushant spoke to Rahul's teachers about my fall and asked them to get in touch with us if they noticed changes in our son's behaviour. For, we were worried that he may act out in school.
Reassured him of our love: After my injury, the focus of family members shifted from Rahul to taking care of me. So, he needed to be reassured that he was still loved and would be taken care of. Having his grandmother around helped a great deal in this respect.
As I had been advised bed rest, I requested my mother to come over for a few weeks to help Sushant take care of the house and Rahul. My husband also took a week’s leave from work to help settle things down.
Once my mother arrived, we all cheered up. Rahul began going to school again. Sushant took over the responsibility of dropping him at school while my mother agreed to pick him up, after. My mother also began to take him out to play in the evenings. Friends rallied around by taking Rahul for outings and sending their children over for play dates.
Watching things get back to the usual routine is very reassuring for the child. It sends the message that life is going in the right direction.
Since my movements were restricted, I drew up a list of activities Rahul and I could do together. These included watching TV shows Rahul liked, listening to music, reading books, storytelling, playing word and board games, solving jigsaw puzzles and also, drawing and colouring together. In fact, my bed rest provided me with one of the best opportunities to bond with Rahul!
Being unable to move, I couldn't do much for my son. However, Sushant stepped in for me. We told Rahul that his dad and grandmother would take care of him. Also, we tried to ensure that the mood at home was fun-filled and lively. Sushant and I tried to crack jokes and laugh every now and then. This prevented Rahul from feeling overwhelmed. Also, we wanted our son to understand that it was okay to laugh and have fun even though I was injured.
I described in age-appropriate language to Rahul, how I dealt with my stress. For instance, I told him that I listened to music and sang along. Also, I used to think of all the happy times we shared as a family. Listening to me, would cheer Rahul up.
The time I took to recover and heal, taught me many things. I became better at handling pain and boredom. I learned that I can depend on others during times of need, and that I should be thankful and grateful for all the love and support I received. I shared all these with Rahul and I think he understood, as well. It is my feeling that my son has become more empathetic and responsible after my accident.
We should remember that children of any age can have trouble dealing with a parent's injury or illness. How they cope depends on their age, temperament and the way the parents handle the situation. And parents, never hesitate to reach out for support during such difficult times.
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