We all know those days…your normally well-behaved and easy-going child becomes an opinionated, cranky, and whiny little person. As the day goes on, symptoms of illness that were not at first obvious, present themselves and the sensitivity of your little one is magnified even further.
Pretty soon you, and your family are walking on eggshells around an emotionally unpredictable tiny child who doesn’t feel well.
In our house, it’s not the days the child feels the worst; those days, they want to snuggle up, sleep, read books and watch TV. The hardest days are the day the child falls ill, and the day they start to feel better. They have a spark of energy and desire to play, but are frustrated by feeling badly and are emotional and hyper-sensitive.
It is obvious they do NOT feel well, and as a result, they are no longer equipped to cope with simple frustrations.
Whether home all day with the children, or spending time with them after work, you need a strategy to smooth out the rough edges and keep the peace of your household.
6 Strategies to ‘Keep the Peace’ When a Child is Ill
1. Lower Your Voice
These days can also frustrate you, so intentionally lower your voice. Speak more softly than normal, and encourage siblings to do the same. Quiet words are more likely to be received calmly and are less likely to be mistaken as yelling by a sensitive child. As a general rule, the quieter my voice, the quieter the response from the child (sick or not).
2. Run Sibling Interference
When one doesn’t feel well, tension between siblings can run high. A sick child is more inclined to perceive normal interactions as ‘unfair’, and be less equipped to graciously deal with the occasional ‘butting of heads’ (figuratively and literally). Helping the well child understand the other child isn’t feeling well may diffuse a few arguments, but if too many, the well child may feel slighted.
Let them play nicely together as long as it lasts. When the peace has ended, efforts to keep each child occupied and perhaps in their own space can pay dividends. Try keeping the other sibling busy building their OWN Lego tower, if possible, try staggering their naps/rest time, or see if they will play nicely in their OWN rooms for a while. Some alone time may allow them to miss the other and play nicely for a while later in the day.
3. Get Creative with Restful Activities
Fill the day with quiet activities that require your child to SIT: play-dough, books, coloring, puzzles, blocks, and that indoor ‘fake’ sand. For most of these activities, each child can have their own space and activity. I can buckle the little one into a high-chair (which allows for easy sibling interference), and the one who doesn’t feel well stays busy in a way that promotes REST. A few other ideas include:
- bath time with plenty of toys – make it extra special by putting on swim suits, playing music, and adding sunglasses for a ‘pool party’
- build a fort (or let them play in their closet so you don’t have to keep rebuilding it, fill it with their bedding and pillows and give them a flashlight and some books
- build a tape road on your carpet and supply the trucks
- any type of sensory play at the table
- making cards or craft presents for grandparents or daddy using water-color paint, glue and cut paper, pipe cleaners or whatever else you have on hand
- setup a ‘zoo’ with all their stuffed animals and give them little people to come and visit
- sit and play doctor, restaurant or other pretend prop activity
- paint a steamy mirror in the bathroom-keeps them busy while loosening congestion
- play a board game if they are old enough
- practice numbers and letters and writing them at the table – even better, use flashcards or a magnetic drawing board and do it snuggled up on the couch
4. Lengthen rest-time (if possible)
Plan ahead! Make sure they’ve eaten if hungry, have some water and tissues nearby, and if necessary, have had a fresh dose of fever reducer or paint reliever a little while BEFORE the rest. Do what you can to help them rest. My son no longer naps, but I TRY to get him to sleep when he is sick. Usually, if I do some extra work, he will sleep (which as a bonus gives ME a needed break!).
If helping them sleep means you need to sit and read a few extra books, or rub their back to help them fall asleep, DO IT! The longer they rest, the quicker they feel better, and the quicker your family can stop walking on eggshells. If the other sibling wakes first, spend some dedicated time with them as they may be getting less attention than usual.
5. Give in to Technology
I generally try to keep the kids away from TV, but am willing to use it liberally when someone is sick. They see TV as a treat, so getting to wrap up in a blanket, snuggle up with mommy and watch Mighty Machines on Netflix is special and exciting. Try to sneak in snuggle time with each child so no one feels left out. As they feel better, reduce TV time accordingly so you don’t have a battle when they feel well. Try giving them a turn using the tablet loaded with a new kids app, scroll through family pictures on the computer, or play their favorite CD and let music distract them for a bit.
6. Adjust Discipline
The whine – you can’t mistake the sick whine because they’re laying it on pretty thick. Usually, I respond to whiny voices by asking the child to say it again, nicely and I get a chipper, smiley response. It may be over-the-top FAKE happy, but it is un-whiny nonetheless. When the child is sick, my request to say it nicely is often met with tears, and a MORE whiny and insistent request (aka demand). If the child was healthy, I’d reinforce that crying and whining to do not get us what we want. EVER. Except when you’re sick. A little whine isn’t going to do much more than hurt my ears and test my patience. The sick child gets a minor whiny-pass, with gentle reminders to try to use a ‘happy face’.
Actively course correct – In addition to giving a break on whining, readjusting discipline to focus more on course correction instead of punishment can help avoid meltdowns. This does not mean ignoring a major offense, but trying to head off a behavior before it needs to be addressed. This can be done by suggesting something else to do, distraction with music or simply by scooping them up in a hug. If you can break their train of thought, you can usually prevent a behavior that requires discipline. On a normal day, I let them figure out where their actions are leading, so they can learn cause-effect of behavior; but when one is sick, I simply try to keep the peace.
Switch methods – You know your child best. Avoid using discipline that you know will amplify their emotions. When my son is sick, I try very hard not to give him a time-out because he hates being alone when sick. A time-out that usually takes 2 minutes becomes an all-out meltdown, sometimes inducing worse behavior that then requires even further discipline. SO, if the offense is minor, I try to adjust how I discipline so we still address the issue, but do so without a time out. For example, if he is takes a toy from his sister, inducing tears, he needs to apologize, say he is sorry and kiss her on the head (avoid kisses if you think they are contagious). OR, I might have him make her a ‘present’ to say sorry by coloring a picture, which can interrupt activity so he doesn’t do the same thing right away. I will then tell him that if the behavior happens again, I will have to put away a toy for the day (his favorite digger or dump truck are the first to go). When sick, confiscating toys works better than time-outs, BUT when he is feeling WELL, taking a toy usually induces a tantrum, so we start with time-outs. Don’t be afraid to try something new if your standard discipline isn’t working.
The good news about minor illnesses is they go away. A little extra effort from you, and you can help keep the peace so the illness doesn’t set your house into a perpetual whiny and tear-stricken place. Good luck!