Having a parent experience limb loss can be a difficult event for children to understand for several reasons. Concern and worry can stem from feelings of fear, sadness, confusion, and even anger. It is important to validate children’s feelings, but it is equally important to help children find healthy ways to work through these emotions. Sometimes children will want to talk to someone other than the parent who has lost a limb, and that’s OK. Sometimes children will want to ask the parent who has lost a limb questions directly, and that’s OK too! In this fact sheet, we have some tips and advice for helping the entire family unit through the time of transition that occurs when a parent returns home after a limb loss. We have included possible questions as well as possible responses.
Ultimately, it is important for families and caregivers to meet their specific children where they are at in the process. You know your children best; respect their boundaries and give them time. Remember, just as the parent who has lost a limb may go through phases of grief or outbursts, children may as well. While the adults in the family may have had time to process what it will be like after a loved one loses a limb, children, even if told before the procedure, may start that process only once the parent has returned home.
Be kind. Be patient. Respect that children are often intuitive and take their cues from you and other adults in their lives.
Common Questions Children May Have
Every child is different, but these are some common questions children may ask after a parent experiences limb loss. Be prepared to assist children with answers that are appropriate for their age, developmental level, and emotional maturity.
- Where is your arm/leg? What happened to it?
- Try and avoid giving children too much information, such as details about a complicated disease process or the amputation surgery, but also don’t shy away from telling children an appropriate version of the truth such as “I was very sick” or “I was very hurt” paired with “and the doctors and nurses knew that I would get much better without it.”
- Does it hurt?
- Pain can be very scary for children. The longer it endures, the more frightening it can be. Even a short time can feel like forever in the world of children. Talk about different types of pain in ways the child can understand. Use examples of times your child may have experienced pain. “Remember when you fell off your bike and scraped up your knees?” “Remember when you burnt your fingers?” Remind the child that pain can be short-lived or last longer, but, eventually, pain gets better. It is unfair, though, to both the child and the parent with limb loss to say that pain will “go away.” It may also be useful to explain that any pain the parent is feeling now is less than the pain felt before the amputation.
- Can this happen to me?
- Alleviate fears by giving information your child can understand. Use explanations that avoid creating additional fears or anxiety. For instance, telling a child that you were asleep when you lost your leg may cause a child to have a fear of bedtime.
- Is this my fault?
- When things happen around them, children can often feel responsible. Do your best to make clear to the child that they did not do anything to cause this limb loss. Even if the limb loss occurred because of an accident, try to make it clear that fault does not lie on any one person’s specific actions.
Other Tips for Helping Children Cope
- Explain that limb loss is not a “punishment”. If, though, the limb loss is the result of the accident, you can discuss safety issues with your child at a time that feels appropriate.
- Limb loss is not contagious and one cannot “catch it” from someone else. Hugging and touching can be a safe and important part of “healing” as a family. However, it is very important to respect the boundaries of both the child and the parent with limb loss. It may take some time for a child to feel comfortable touching the “new” limb or the prosthesis. Likewise, the parent may need some time to desensitize the limb or become comfortable with another’s touch.
- Explain that you are still the parent you were before the limb loss, and limb loss does not affect how much you care for and love the child. Explain all the things you can still do to take care of them regardless of limb loss such as reading bedtime stories. Also, explain any of the things which may be different. It can be helpful to involve the child in brainstorming new ways to keep doing favorite activities.
- Encourage the child’s natural desire to help, but always bear in mind the child’s level of skill and ability. Make sure to work closely with the adult with limb loss. They are the only person who will be able to decide what help actually “helps.” For instance, some well-meaning help may interfere with the parent’s desire to find their new independence. Never try and do something “for” someone, but always strive to do something “with” someone.
- Try and avoid adverse reactions by explaining things the child may see before they see their parent or loved one for the first time after the loss of a limb. For instance: seeing someone remove a prosthetic device. Show pictures of others with limb loss to desensitize the child, and help them understand there is no need to be frightened by these differences. Be sure to check out the Amputee Coalition fact sheet Resources to Help Children Understand Limb Loss for different books across different reading levels for examples of limb loss and limb difference!
- Encourage curiosity. By nature, children are very curious. Remove mysteries about things like prosthetic devices by allowing them to see and feel components. If the child is interested, bring them to the prosthetist’s office during a visit to learn more.
- If possible, have the child talk with other children whose parents have lost a limb. Connect with your local support group to find other families living with limb loss. The child may be able to make a friend, but the adults and caregivers may be able to find even more local resources they didn’t know about.
- Encourage the child to express his or her feelings through drawing, poetry, writing a story, etc. This can be a great way to process out some of the “bad” feelings like fear or sadness, but it can also be a good way for “writing” their own ending; this may help children visualize and conceptualize what their and their parent’s “new normal” can or will be.
It is not the intention of the Amputee Coalition to provide specific medical or legal advice but rather to provide consumers with information to better understand their health and healthcare issues. The Amputee Coalition does not endorse any specific treatment, technology, company, service or device. Consumers are urged to consult with their healthcare providers for specific medical advice or before making any purchasing decisions involving their care.
National Limb Loss Resource Center, a program of the Amputee Coalition, located at 900 East Hill Ave., Suite 390, Knoxville, TN 37915 | 888/267-5669
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