Earlier today, I pulled a muscle in my back badly enough that I need to lie down to let it relax, and also don't plan on picking up heavy objects (like a small child) for a few days. His other parent understands and is able and willing to pitch in, the older siblings are largely uninterested, but the preschooler....

How can I explain temporary incapacitation to a three year old in such a way that it's very clear I'm not angry, I don't want to ignore and neglect him, but I just can't play with him the way he wants right now? Ironically, we've never had trouble when one parent or another is out of town or working late, but being visible and not getting up is frustrating him right now.

  • 2
    Oh dear, hope you feel better soon!
    – Stephie
    Commented May 17, 2015 at 21:20
  • Tell him your body is broken and there are tiny creatures inside you (known to us older folk as cells) that are going to be busy fixing you, and that too much strain will upset their work and might make you even more broken.
    – Pharap
    Commented May 18, 2015 at 12:15
  • 1
    After recovering from a back sprain my then-three year old asked me while I was laying down: "Daddy, does your back hurt?". When I told her that my back no longer hurts, she jumped right on me about as hard as she could! I couldn't get mad at her: she was allowed to do that up until I started telling her that my back hurts... she had been waiting a full month for that moment!
    – dotancohen
    Commented May 18, 2015 at 15:00
  • @dotancohen I think that sort of roughhousing is what he is missing most!
    – Acire
    Commented May 18, 2015 at 15:18
  • I think you should just explain to him that you are injured. If that doesn't work then try to keep him interested in things that don't require physical movement like a board game or a computer game.
    – user16267
    Commented May 18, 2015 at 21:12

3 Answers 3


A 3-year old should be able understand that you are sick and that something hurts - unless you have an exceptionally healthy child he should have experienced this himself. You need to explain what hurts and what you need to do or can't do. Repeat the explanation as often as needed: You can't do X because your back hurts a lot. This is actually a good occasion to teach emphathy, if neccessary.

But I can think of one "game": Play that you are ill.

That means that you need to lay down, be treated nicely and cared for. With some luck you will get "medical care", juice, be lend some stuffed animals or have stories read to you. Small bonus: You get to whine a bit and complain about being hurt - something we strong and reliable parents rarely allow ourselves to do.

Even with a bad back, you might be able to read to him (he can fetch the book, turn the pages and put the book back). And once this gets boring he should be ok to play with the other parent, a sibling or alone.

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    Perhaps the other parent can bring home a toy doctor kit, or you can make one from bits you have around the house.
    – MJ6
    Commented May 17, 2015 at 21:57

I suffer from some chronic pain issues, which occasionally make it impossible or very uncomfortable for me to get down and play with my son, who is just over 2 years old.

My wife has also had some issues, recently. She sprained her foot during her last trimester, and just delivered our second son and has quite a few tender spots.

The solution we use with my son is to simply tell him that we hurt. Right now, the language we use is, "I can't play right now, because I have an owie. My neck is owie, and my back is owie." I have told him that, verbatim, several times before. He understood very well the first time I told him this. He does act disappointed, but he knows it's not because I have a problem with him. I think on a few occasions I even made that explicit, and said, "Papa wants to play, but I can't because of my owies."

To make it easier on him, I try to do other things with him, such as reading a book while sharing a seat. Other times I try to suggest more playful activities that I know I can physically handle--that is, ones that let me sit somewhere comfortably and interact with him. Some activities like this are Play-Doh or drawing. Often, it's enough that I'm there with him, that I don't actually have to do all that much.

To sum up, my solution is really two parts:

  1. Just be frank with your son, using language that's at his level. Your 3-year-old may understand more complex phrasing than just saying you having an "owie" on your back.
  2. Suggest other activities for him to engage in, preferably those where you have some involvement.

I think this will help with other possible reasons for not being able to play with him. For instance, my son quickly adapted to, "Mama can't play right now, she's feeding the baby." He understands that sometimes we're not available.

  • Amen. My then-3 year old was VERY VERY understanding and emphathetic when I broke my wrist. He even volunteered to help "care" for me, and kept worrying if I was in pain and always inquired how I felt. 3 YO is prenty mature for this.
    – user3143
    Commented May 18, 2015 at 21:26

How about if you choose a doll, puppet, stuffed animal or playmobile character to be a stand-in for you? You might need another one to be a stand-in for the child as well. Then while you are reclining on the sofa, or whatever, you could play-act the mama pushing the child in the swing, picking up the child and swinging him around, etc. Maybe your son would enjoy manipulating one of the characters. For example, you could ask him to show you what the mama character should do, and how she should do it.

Maybe you could have some fun with some TLC, such as asking your son to put a band-aid on your boo-boo, turning on your heating pad, covering you up with a small blanket. Some three-year-olds are never happier than when they can apply lots and lots of bandaids to their doll.

I hope you have a present stashed away for a future present that you could quietly unveil, or a small friend who could come over for a play date, or a medium-sized friend who could come over to be a mother's helper. Or one of your older children can be induced to help out.

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