Explaining Rheumatoid Arthritis to Your Kids

Offer reassurance first and the rest will follow. Read on for age-appropriate ways to broach the subject of RA with your kids.

Stacey Feintuch
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Maybe you can’t play on the floor with your little ones the way you once did. Or you’re too exhausted in the morning to captain the kiddie carpool. Or boiling hot dogs has become as daunting as making Thanksgiving dinner. When rheumatoid arthritis (RA) becomes part of your life, your kids will notice. And if you don’t address it, confusion, fear and stress will follow.

So how do you begin to explain a condition as tricky as rheumatoid arthritis?

First, don’t make a big deal out of it by calling a family conference. Instead, discuss your RA when the opportunity arises—for example, during a drive together or while you and the kids are assembling a puzzle. The mood should be calm, and everyone should be relaxed.

As the conversation gets going, let your kids take the lead. Focus on what they’re asking, and when you sense they’re satisfied with the answers and have enough information to process, drop the topic until next time. Remember, this is an ongoing dialogue. Depending on how old your children are, they’ll be at your side as you go through flares, fatigue, treatment and remission, and you’ll have plenty of chances to revisit the topic.

Here are some age-appropriate talking points to get the ball rolling:

Very young, preschool

What to say: Even young children are perceptive—they’re likely to notice that you can’t do certain things. But they don’t need to know confusing details or what RA meds you’re taking. Use simple language with toddlers, who may have limited vocabularies and may not understand pain. To show your children what hurts, point to your knee or elbow and say, “Mommy has a boo-boo here, so we can’t run around right now.” Preschoolers have a few more vocabulary and logic skills, so you can explain that, although you’re sick, you can still have fun. If you don’t feel well enough to play outside, for example, offer a choice of activities, so your children feel a sense of control. For example, say, “I’m sorry I don’t feel well enough to play in the backyard. Do you want to read a book or sing songs together?”

How they can help: Children can help make their favorite activities easier for you. Stack blocks or color a picture together on a table instead of hurting your knees and back by sitting on the floor. Or play on your strengths: You read the directions while your kids assemble the puzzle. And ask them to help with chores; even a 5-year-old can help fold laundry or set the table.

April 2013