It’s a sight sure to pierce the very heart of any parent.
Your little bundle of joy, Pookie, is sick: snorting, spewing, coughing, miserable. She looks up at you with those big, limpid, trusting, bleary, red eyes: What’s wrong with me, Mommy? Help me! Fix it!
Then, when miraculous relief is not forthcoming, reproach: Why aren’t you making me feel better? Why are you letting me down when I love and trust you so? What kind of a Mommy are you?
The urge is overwhelming: Don’t just stand there, do something!
But what, exactly?
How about a cold medicine? Whoops, no go. Cough and cold preparations are no longer prescribed for children under 4 years because of rare but potential significant side effects. And, to be honest, they never did work well anyway. Scratch the cold medicines.
How about good old Tylenol or Motrin? Well, no. They are only useful for pain and fever, neither of which Pookie has. They wouldn’t do anything useful (except to give the illusion of doing something to make things better).
I’ve got it! Good old Vapo Rub! Great idea. Except, as you probably just read, there was a recent case report of a problem with an 18 month old infant who was hypersensitive to camphor oil and had breathing problems because of its administration under her nose. Plus, the stuff is pretty useless, except to stink up the joint.
Here’s the sad, hard, inconvenient truth: there are some negative experiences in life from which you will be unable to protect your kids – the misery of a bad cold being one of them. The desire to do something – anything - is strong but, as we’ve learned, that can sometimes lead to side effects that are far worse than the ‘disease’.
As physicians, we take the vow: “First do no harm.” That goes for you parents also.
Actually, I’m not convinced this is even bad news. Like all of us, children need to learn to cope with adversity, to feel lousy but then to endure the misery and emerge unscathed, perhaps even stronger, on the other side. That successful sense of mastery will serve your child well when other adversity strikes (as it inevitably will) and she instinctively knows: I will get through this OK!
But there is an even more important lesson that is often learned: the magical healing love and support of wonderful caregivers. Perhaps Mom was ineffectual at making it better right away but, during my miseries, she provided me with a powerful, comforting cocoon of warmth, of support, of care, of love.
When we ourselves have the misery, who among us – no matter what our age or station in life – doesn’t ache for Mommy to soothe a fevered brow and offer hot soup and a knowing hug and a sympathetic gaze, just as she so memorably and lovingly did all those years ago.
For many, the tender ministrations of our parents during illness is one of the most enduring and beautiful and powerful of our childhood memories. Be sure your kids have a bunch of them and you will, in fact, have really done something of earthshaking importance during their misery, something that far transcends the quick fix of an ineffectual medication, something that cuts to the heart of a parent’s love.