Oh! It must be so painful!

How should we react when our children are in pain? Oh Yes! It matters. It decides how much pain the child really experiences.

By J Ram

Oh! It must be so painful!

One day, I was going up an escalator in a mall. A boy, who was around 7 or 8 years old, was a little ahead of me. Suddenly, he fell and tumbled down the escalator. He stopped with a thud right in front of me. The crash created quite a commotion.

The boy started bawling. But it was nothing compared to his mother’s wail. She was waiting agitatedly near the landing platform. As soon as the boy reached the platform, she gathered him in her arms, and quickly performed a ‘whole-body scan’. All the while, the pitch of her wail kept increasing. It was punctuated every now and then with - “Oh! It must be so painful!” “Where does it hurt, my dear?” Throughout, the boy’s bawling matched his mother’s wail. Every time she enquired about his pain, the pitch of his cry would increase.

The mother’s reaction in this case, is a common one that most parents experience when their children are in pain. It is quite understandable. However, the question is, is it wise on the part of parents to react like this? Does parental reaction to pain influence children’s own reaction to pain? Also, should we under-react or overreact when our children experience pain? In other words, had the mother remained calm and collected at the landing platform, and comforted the boy stating, “… take it easy; it’s just a little tumble; you’ll be alright,” would it have caused the boy to experience less paid? Research suggests yes.

Let us understand how. Certain areas of the brain such as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) show increased activation in relation to the intensity of pain experienced. That is, the activation in the ACC will be higher if Vijender Singh, India’s ace boxer, gave you a right hook, instead of the author of this article (of course, I have no intention to!). However, an interesting experiment at the Wake Forest School of Medicine, North Carolina, indicated that perceived intensity of pain influenced the activation of ACC. In other words, if you expect less pain for a pain stimulus, there will be lower activation in the ACC and vice versa. This means, if you think my right hook punch will be deadlier than that of Vijender, then it is likely that you will experience more pain after my right-hook than after one from the ace boxer! Of course, there is enough evidence also to suggest that one’s expectations can be managed, provided the one who is doing so is seen as credible and trustworthy.

This phenomenon indicates that the boy’s mother should have underplayed her own reactions. She needn’t have created so much of a fuss about the minor accident. Probably then, the boy would have also treated the incident lightly, merely winced about his pain and enjoyed his visit to the mall.

But, a word of caution here. It is important to underplay such incidents only so that children experience less pain. It does not mean a you should completely ignore the child’s pain or not assess the injury for any medical attention that may be required. In case you suspect a fracture or other serious injury, you may have to rush your child to the hospital.

However, there is a catch to this ploy. Remember, the trick works only when the person is perceived to be trustworthy and dependable. Really? Yes. I recall an incident when I was a boy and was about to be given an injection in a hospital. I was very scared and my fear only increased when a burly male nurse declared, “Boy, it will be no more than a pin-prick.” It was not; it hurt a lot for a long time. But then it was quite different with nurse Mary. She was very kind and reassuring. Every time, she would say, “Boy, it would hurt only as much as an ant bite. OK?” 

As parents, it is important that we underplay the impact of any accident or mishap that our children may be involved in. For then, they will experience less pain. It will also do wonders for their resilience.