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Explaining Arthritis to Your Children

Helping Your Children Understand Your Limitations

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Updated October 30, 2008

Finding the best way to explain arthritis to children can be tricky. If you are a parent with arthritis, it will be a challenge to get your children to understand your physical limitations.

Building Trust

Your first goal is to focus on building trust with your children. They need to trust you, trust that everything will be alright, trust that what you tell them is true, and trust that if they should be told something, you will tell them. With a foundation of trust -- getting your children to understand arthritis is do-able.

Arthritis impacts the whole family so you will want your children to understand as much as possible -- taking into consideration their age and ability to comprehend. Launching into a discussion about inflammation with a 6- or 7-year-old would be futile -- but it should be discussed when the topic is age-appropriate.

Allay Their Fear

Children become afraid when one of their parents is sick. Children internalize the situation -- often believing that they have done something to cause their parent's illness (e.g., I behaved badly so now Mommy doesn't feel good). They fear the sick parent will go away or die. At some point, older children fear they will develop arthritis too.

It's easy to see how those fears bubble up within a child -- but it's not so easy to convince a child their fears are unfounded. Once again, you should be able to allay their fears if they trust you. Explain that they are not the cause of your arthritis. You could say to your child, "Mommy doesn't know exactly how she got arthritis but knows for sure it wasn't because of you." It's a statement that offers comfort to your child.

It's also important to explain that you may briefly go away (for example, to the hospital), but that you will return. Once they experience this, fear should diminish. But on a deeper level, are children afraid parents will physically go away or are they actually afraid their parent -- and the way things used to be pre-arthritis -- will go away?

Ask Your Children to Help You

Let your children help you -- whether that help involves doing the dishes or helping you put on socks -- your children will feel much better if they are involved. Children fear what they don't know or what they don't understand. Let your children experience arthritis through you.

By allowing your children to help, you encourage compassion in them. They will learn more about arthritis by observing what gives you most difficulty than through anything you could say to them. Do this within reason, though -- ask for help so that you build a bond with each other and so that they learn the realities of arthritis. But you should stop short of turning your children into fulltime caretakers.

Keep Activities as Normal as Possible

It's best to keep the routine at home as normal as possible. Disruptions provoke anxiety. If your child goes to dance class or karate class once a week and you don't feel well enough to drive them or stay and watch -- find a ride for them. Do not make them miss their activity because you are feeling ill.

If your family used to play basketball in the driveway after dinner but you can no longer physically participate because of arthritis -- encourage the others to carry on. Sit on the sidelines and be the coach or scorekeeper. Don't stop there though. Find an activity you can still do with your children and fit that into your week. If you take away an activity -- substitute another. After all, it's not so much the activity itself that's important -- it's time spent together.

Points to Remember

Remember the following when explaining arthritis to your children. You must:

  • develop trust between you and your children.
  • address their fears but with age-appropriate conversations.
  • involve your children rather than shelter your children from arthritis.
  • make the effort to be minimally disruptive -- try to maintain your child's routine.
  • encourage your children to ask questions and be sure you answer every question honestly.

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