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Essential Parenting Tips For Raising Kids With Medical Issues

Feb 7, 2008
I knew I was in trouble. She ripped the oxygen sensor off her finger and refused to put it back on.

Recovering from surgery isn't easy for anyone but it's especially challenging when the patient is only seven. My daughter was grumpy and uncooperative. That was understandable but not helping the situation. Coming out of surgery, she needed to be monitored; the medical sensors weren't optional. Kasey was not responding well to the doses of loving kindness and patience shown by those around her. There was nothing anyone could do to satisfy her. She was simply cranky.

"I need a blanket!" I pull up the blanket. She kicks it off with a scowl: "I'm too hot." Then, "I'm thirsty!" The nurse says, "You'll throw up. You need to wait awhile." "No, I want water now!" she cries pitifully. Heart aching, I ask for some water. They give her a red popsicle. That should make her happy if anything will. One little nibble and she resumes her wails for water. "Can't we give her a little water?" I ask. "What's the worst that can happen?" So we gave her some water and she was satisfied. Then, she promptly threw up.

I start running through all of my good Love and Logic tools that might help to insure the oxygen sensor stays on her finger. What might work? Enforceable statements? Nah, not the right thing at this moment. Empathy? Yeah but I'm already giving her lots of that. Choices? Ah ha! Let's try that one. "Would you like the sensor on your finger or your toe?" No response except the stubbornly set chin and a turn of the head.

With a heavy sigh, it struck me again how hard it is to set limits around misbehavior when our child is sick and in pain. When our children are hurting, it is so natural for everyone around them to acquiesce to every demand. We feel so badly for them and just want to make it all better - make it all go away. For a short period of time, that might be tolerable and not harmful. Sometimes we all need a little extra leeway and grace. But when giving leeway impedes good health care or giving understanding enables poor health decisions then thoughtful parenting choices become critical. And correct parenting responses are even more critical when pain and sickness are a part of everyday life.

These circumstances lead many children to understandably become more demanding and entitled. However, continually bowing down to the constant, and at times unreasonable, demands of a spoiled tyrant can be wearing on everyone in the house. And sadly, it doesn't even help the demanding child that parents may be attempting to pacify. Illness and pain make it hard to know where to draw the line. At what point does a parent say, "I am happy to bring you a popsicle when you ask me nicely?" And how many parents are really strong enough to withstand the tantrum that is likely to ensue?

When a child is chronically ill, guilt often kicks in along with close cousins: sympathy and fear. Guilt, sympathy and fear can control our parental responses before we are really even aware of them. As we trot off to retrieve the demanded item for an ill child, the thought might not even occur to us to accept only polite requests. And if the thought "I don't like how she is treating me" does occur, it gets drowned out by the other thoughts like "Give her a break, she doesn't feel well" or "She might get even sicker if I don't do as she asks" or "I want all of her moments to be happy ones so I won't say no" or "I have no energy to handle the fighting that is sure to happen if I say no."

The problem is that the more we give in to a tyrant, the more he demands. Hitler is the extreme example that appeasement simply doesn't work; not for dictators and not for children. We are all part of the same human race with the same only too human nature that says: "I want more." All who have spent time around a strong willed two- or three-year-old know the truth of Lawrence Kutner's statement, "The fundamental job of a toddler is to rule the universe." Left unchecked, demanding toddlers grow up to become controlling and demanding adults.

So, what is a parent to do? How do we best insure that our children cope with their health challenges in productive ways? How do we help them grow up into adults who are respectful, responsible, and hopeful?

Effectively responding to an ill and demanding child starts with an awareness of the dangers of an entitled mentality. Although parents may put up with a child who is demanding, rude, or lacking self control, the real world of adulthood is much less accepting. The best gift a parent can give a child is the opportunity to learn how to treat others with respect and to guide them in taking responsibility for getting their own needs met instead of demanding that others meet those needs.

Parents must effectively deal with arguments when setting limits. One-liners can be very effective. A calmly delivered response such as "I love you too much to argue" can turn down the heat when tempers start to flare - on both sides.

Share control as much as possible. Children who are chronically ill have less control over their bodies, time and circumstances than other kids. Allowing children to make as many decisions as possible helps them feel like they at least have some control in their own lives.

Parents must take good care of themselves by setting loving limits around how they are treated. Gently delivered phrases such as "I will listen to you as soon as your voice is calm like mine" or "I am happy to do nice things for you when I feel treated with respect" or "I'll get you the remote control when you ask nicely" will help your child learn to treat you, and others, with respect.

When children make mistakes, including treating others badly, wise parents respond with empathy and sadness rather than anger and frustration before delivering consequences. "Oh sweetheart, this is so sad. All of this arguing (or disrespect) has really worn me out today so I won't be taking you on your play date. Maybe we can try again tomorrow."

As I gazed at my daughter's firmly set chin and pursed lips, I pondered how to handle this oxygen sensor issue. I knew telling her to "just do it" wasn't going to cut it. That would only make her dig in and be more resistant. Of course in the extreme, the doctors could make her keep it on but that's not what I wanted to do. Forcing a child to comply might win the battle but loses the war of building character and internal ability to make good decisions.

In the end, it was simply allowing her to the freedom to make her own decisions that did it and trusting that she was a good decision-maker if given information in a matter-of-fact manner without showing my frustration. "Sweetheart, I understand you don't like it but I don't think it's a wise decision to keep the sensor off. If your body starts to get sick then the doctors won't know it and it could be a problem for you. So what do you think you'll do here?" I could see the wheels turning....

And without a word, she picked up the sensor and popped it back onto her finger. Oh wise child!
About the Author
The book "Parenting Children with Health Issues" is by Foster W. Cline, M.D., child psychiatrist and co-founder of Love and Logic (Love and Logic) and Lisa Greene, mother of two children with cystic fibrosis. Visit Parenting Children With Health Issues.
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