Children can often help parents reduce stress and help themselves at the same time.
In and out of my Parents Anonymous Group, I have come across many parents dealing with situations that are very stressful, specifically, children who have chronic conditions or illnesses. By conditions or illnesses, I mean anything that occurs over time and requires continual attention, monitoring or management. Example: Asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, food allergies, ADHD and so on.
When I first began coming to my Parents Anonymous Group there was a mother attending who was preoccupied and sometimes overwhelmed by her twelve-year-old daughter’s need for a rigid diet. Almost every week, Dana spent all or part of her group time on discussion of Joanna’s celiac disease, causes and manifestations. (Celiac disease: eating gluten triggers an immune response in the small intestines that can damage the lining and over time can prevent the absorption of nutrients.) Her former husband apparently was not as careful and often fed Joanna foods that created havoc in her body. Another week it would be Joanna’s grandmother or a friend who would forget and give her the wrong foods with Joanna and Dana reaping the consequences.
Listening to Dana reminded me of an old friend who began giving herself insulin injections for diabetes when she was just two years old.
“Joanna is twelve, why isn’t she taking on at least some of the responsibility for her disease?” I asked.
Dana looked stunned and replied, “Well, I don’t know, I just never thought about it.”
As mothers we tend to manage everything, from schedules, home maintenance, doctor appointments and so on, all without consulting others or asking for help. What about a child’s chronic condition? It made perfect sense to me, if a child has a condition that may be with them well into adulthood then they should certainly take ownership of that, as age appropriately as they can. Parents can think of it as their child’s on-the-job training for the future.
When my daughter Katie was very young she became a lightning rod for anyone who came near her in the afternoon. One day she was very cranky and moody and snapped at me— I had had enough!
“Do you know what your problem is, why you are behaving this way?” I asked.
Katie shot back, “No, so what’s the matter with me then?”
Calmly I explained to Katie that every afternoon at about the same time that she becomes very cranky. I told her that she was not her usual self, she’s tired and when she’s like that a nap may help. She immediately closed her door and took a nap. A short while later she emerged her old bubbly self. Katie began taking regular naps – 15 to 45 minutes a day – and was transformed. Having a short nap made an important change in her life and also taught her to be more attuned to her body and its signals.
Being tired is not as critical as celiac disease but I felt it was within her power to handle the issue and improve her life and indirectly ours as a family. Becoming pro-active about her mood issues and having success was empowering for Katie.
Chelsey, on the other hand, was in tune to her body signals early on. She often told me that she did not like bananas and that they made her throat or tongue itch. At the time I thought she was making it up because she simply did not like bananas. After a dental cleaning appointment I noticed red blotches all over her face, especially around her mouth. A trip to the allergist showed that Chelsey did indeed have an allergy to bananas; blotches from the dental technician’s latex gloves were the proof. The allergist also said that banana allergies are linked to possibly dangerous anaphylaxis from a latex allergy. This was something Chelsey needed to be aware of in order to protect herself from reactions. Possible sources of latex would include clothing, prepared foods, getting injections, condoms and more.
The following are examples of the words a child might use to describe a food reaction:
“This food is too spicy.”
“My tongue is hot [or burning].”
“It feels like something’s poking my tongue.”
“My tongue [or mouth] is tingling [or burning].”
“My tongue [or mouth] itches.”
“It [my tongue] feels like there is hair on it.”
“My mouth feels funny.”
“There’s a frog in my throat.”
“There’s something stuck in my throat.”
“My tongue feels full [or heavy].”
“My lips feel tight.”
“It feels like there are bugs in there.” (to describe itchy ears)
“It [my throat] feels thick.”
“It feels like a bump is on the back of my tongue [throat].”
Elaine, a member and co-leader in my Parents Anonymous Group, told me about her experience with daughter Ashley recently. “Ashley used to tell me eating raw carrots made her ears itch. Yea, yea, yea. I just dismissed it and kept giving her carrots in salads. Well, as an adult she went to an allergist, and among other things, she is allergic to carrots!”
The need-to-know is not limited to medical issues. In school you may see a teacher discussing with a parent how to get their ADHD child to complete homework, but in reality, who is having that same discussion with the child? ADDitude Magazine is a trusted resource for parents helping their children with ADD or ADHD, so why are only parents and children not children reading it together? As many already know, children do not outgrow ADD, it moves with them into adulthood and the real world. Helping children understand their condition and how it manifests for them specifically is taking a leap forward by making them allies in coping and functioning to the best of their abilities.
What happened to Dana and her daughter? Dana continued to attend for a few months and began to teach Joanna about celiac disease and how important foods were in managing the condition and future wellness. Dana said she had begun to put much of the responsibility on her daughter to know what she was eating. She was effectively thinking of her daughter as an ally, not the problem.
Not every child will be able to completely manage their condition on their own in the beginning so supervision and guidance are the keys to success. Many, though, will be able to begin learning about their lifetime condition so at some point they will be able to have a life separate from their parents. Isn’t that our ultimate goal?