When your child is sick, you don’t need to freak out.
One thing I teach all my clients is that symptoms follow an arc. Like every process, there is a cycle to healing: a beginning, middle, and an end.
In the beginning of the arc, when a child is first showing symptoms, most parents will ask a series of questions or offer simple advice:
“Do you have a headache? A glass of water could help.”
“You’re looking peaked. Maybe you need to lie down.”
“You seem a bit cranky—is everything okay?”
“If you’re congested, a steamy shower or cup of herbal tea might be nice.”
“Want to cuddle?”
As parents, we offer simple suggestions to allow our children’s bodies to process and move through an illness. We feel concerned, but not overly concerned. We’re comfortable with the body’s symptoms and our repertoire of supportive tools. And, truth be told, we haven’t stayed up with our kid three nights in a row…yet.
At the arc’s beginning, the pathogen (a virus or bacteria) enters the body, which initiates the healing mechanism. The response can be coughing, fever, gunk in the lungs, fatigue, thirst, or wheezing. Your child’s body is calling out from the inside, saying, “Hey, we’ve got visitors!” Her immune system responds by identifying the bug and using its first responders. The symptoms are the signs of that adaptation (a good thing, right?).
At this point, we’ve identified that her body is clearly cycling through something. This phase can last two hours, two days, or even a week.
The middle section is the crescendo. Your kid has been coughing all night, sweating up a storm, running a significant fever, is unable to eat comfortably, and is missing school or outside activities. This is the moment where parents may freak out and stop trusting the body’s ability to resolve things, and often where they start to reach for over-the-counter medications. Panicked calls and latenight Internet searches can ensue. Add in a tired parent, and we’re not so connected as we might ideally be.
Guess what? The crescendo is evidence of healing. It’s supposed to happen.
Just realizing that there will always be a crescendo can help us understand the nature of illness. The body’s immune system is in the process of adapting, learning, integrating—growing, for Pete’s sake—and it’s a little uncoordinated until the lesson is learned.
Internally, during the crescendo, the initial responders are waning and the immune cells are taking over. This is where the real learning takes place. The body is moving from reaction to integration. And the intensification of symptoms almost always happens.
And this, moms and dads, is where loving support and trust are your biggest allies. Of course, we do our due diligence and make sure our kid gets hydrated, is not delirious, and that our gut is not saying, “Call 911.” And if you can get some rest yourself, you might find it a lot easier to be patient with your child’s suffering.
I tell all the people in my practice something my mentor taught me: “It will get worse before it gets better, and when it’s the worst, 95 percent of the time you are 24 hours from resolution of the illness.”
Just knowing this changed my parenting. Instead of fearing the height of symptoms, I now understand that it’s merely a part of the healing process. I wasn’t afraid of the crescendo anymore; I listened to this cue that my child’s body was healing.
The crescendo isn’t pretty, and both parent and child can feel uncomfortable. It’s just like that place in your favorite Netflix show: All heck is breaking loose and you are scared for your main character. You almost cannot bear the tension. And then…
A resolution happens. The end of an illness is when the cells of the immune system have identified the pathogen and integrated it. The body is returning to normal—except the new normal holds the invaluable lessons learned during the infection. On the inside your child is wiser, better equipped, more developed, and smarter. Yes, they had to go through a miserable process, but the result is how nature works. Chaos leads to order.
Think of a preschool classroom. At the start of the day, a child might be clinging to his parent as he puts his coat in his cubby. The transition into the play area requires a bit of warming up, maybe with a teacher leading him by the hand into the room. This is the beginning of the arc.
Then play builds to the crescendo. The child goes to the dress-up area and tries on every piece of clothing, every crown or hat, and every scarf. The area soon looks like a fluffy, brocade-laden mess of garments. Next, he moves on to the “library,” taking out every book, perusing each page and “reading” to friends. Books go everywhere and the kids are surrounded by piles of words.
This looks like chaos. But actually, the child is learning through play. The immune system works the same way— chaos first, then order. (And in reality, the sequence of chaos/order/chaos/order repeats throughout a lifetime.)
At the end of the day, everything in the classroom is put back in its place. The floor is swept, the light switched off. Everything appears to be back exactly where it was before. But the child, having spent the day happily engaged in play, has new experiences, new learning, and a new set of neural connections.
He may look the same from the outside, but inside, he’s incorporating real knowledge.
When you allow a child to move from sandbox to painting station with a bit of chaos, he will grow, learn, and develop. If you stop him in the middle of his creative play and try to force a lesson, it’s like giving a medication to suppress symptoms. Suppression stops growth and development. Adult intervention may seem like it’s called for, but the kid’s innate wisdom, given free reign, will lead in stronger, new directions.
Although it feels counterintuitive, giving the symptoms room to play means you’re creating a learning environment for the immune system. And the body even puts its own toys away.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #52.
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