Dr. Adams is now a featured contributor and expert for Guidance Guide (www.parental.guidanceguide.com)! The following blog post can also be found as an expert guide on Guidance Guide!
Winter is here, and so are running noses, the sniffles, and colds that seem to drag on for weeks at a time. Given that young children are prone to exploring the world using their mouths, and toddlers aren’t known for their hygiene, it is no wonder that kids are often sick.
In my work with parents, it is so common to hear that a particularly difficult week occurred during a time when their child was sick. For lots of kids, they communicate their discomfort with being ill through less than desirable behavior. Even as adults, when we don’t feel well, it takes a toll on our bodies and our patience. Young children are unlikely to complain about the specifics of their illness, but they might show you how they feel through irritability or an increase in tantrums.
Parenting when a child is under the weather can be tricky. Here are a few tips to get you through:
1). Understand the behavior can be a proxy for emotion – and empathize. If you suspect that your child is cranky and having a tough time because they don’t feel well, name it to help your child understand it. You want to empathize with your child about how difficult being sick can be, and how you understand that they don’t feel well. For many children the experience of being sick can be confusing, and for some kids it might even be scary. Remembering to remain calm and empathetic will help them through it. As always, books are a great resource! Some of my favorites are Bear Feels Sick, A Sick Day for Amos McGee, and Llama Llama Home with Mama.
2). Relax expectations (and keep demands lower than usual). I know that sick days can throw parents through a loop. An unexpected sick day inevitably throws a wrench in workdays and schedules. While the reality is that we might need to answer emails while our children watches TV, keep in mind that entertaining themselves for an entire day likely isn’t a reasonable expectation for a young child. Remember to keep demands lower than usual. This isn’t the time for long shopping trips or picking battles over small behaviors. Keep things structured and choose your battles carefully. The one exception? Sleep. Sleep is so important when little ones are sick, so try to keep sleep routines as close to normal as possible.
3). Keep them occupied. Truth be told, I have some nice memories of sick days when I was younger. While feeling badly is the worst, giving our bodies time to recover and rest can force us to s-l-o-w down and delight in a slower pace. The “resting” part of not feeling well is often tough for many young kids, and a lack of distraction will only force them to more intensely focus on the fact that they don’t feel well. My work in hospitals taught me that for sick children (and adults!) distraction is king. When our minds are not focused on physical symptoms and discomfort, they are not felt as intensely. As parents, we can harness this knowledge and use it to remember to keep our kids distracted. Engaging art projects, cooking soup, coloring, reading books, playing board games, and just snuggling up and watching a movie together are great ways to keep the child occupied while not winding them up. Sensory activities like water beads are also a great idea! Silver lining: it’s a chance to spend some uninterrupted time and finally do some of those quiet, in-home activities we have been hoping to do “when we have the time.” Enjoy the extra snuggles!