Advice and tips for parents with children with problem dry skin
Problem dry skin or irritated skin is common in babies and children and it can be difficult to manage. If your child is susceptible to the problem, dry cracked skin can develop and become painful or irritated. And it is very hard to tell a child not to itch!
Scratching is one of the main causes of skin redness and irritation and it’s normally this that damages the skin, making it all much worse, rather than the dry skin itself.
So, what can you do to help alleviate the pain and itching caused by your child’s dry skin? And when it does get irritated, stop them scratching.
Help your child to understand the problem. Normalise it for them as much as possible while remaining sympathetic to the fact that it is difficult for them. Keep your explanation short and simple and don’t overcomplicate it. Let them know that it’s a problem lots of people suffer from, that it requires management and that regular scratching or rubbing damages the skin and prevents the skin from getting back to normal.
Children (and adults!) love routine. Apply lotion for dry skin as part of a daily routine so it’s something that happens every day and your child expects it. Try tagging it to something that already happens such as after having a bath or before getting dressed in the morning. If they’re old enough give them a say in how they want to manage it - the best time to put cream on or how they like it applied - so they feel they have some control over the situation. Model what you want and let them see you applying cream too
Make it fun
Try and keep it fun for your child and keep things light hearted if you can. Are you turning them into a ghost, can they help you do it or draw a picture on their skin, or can you put on a funny voice?
When the skin itches, the response is to scratch and this can become an automatic reaction, even in very small babies. The itching relieves the itch and this can feel pleasurable, so it can be hard to resist and we can find ourselves doing it without even realising. Then once you start itching it leads to more itching. Use the next steps to try to make your child more aware of when it’s happening and offer an alternative.
Itching can be due to uncomfortable dry skin, but there are things that can make it worse for your child. It’s good to be aware of what these are and to limit them. For example hot baths, soap, temperature change, clothing, overheating, sweating and irritants are all known to make dry skin and itching worse.
Itching can also be caused due to psychological factors such as stress, uncomfortable feelings or tiredness. Think about what else they can do when they’re feeling overwhelmed. Can you give them a hug, encourage them to take deep calming breaths, offer them their favourite toy or ensure they get more sleep? Work out what works best for your child and try to recognise stressful situations before they happen.
Itch management strategies
Avoid saying ‘don’t scratch’ - as soon as they hear ‘don’t’, it will be all they’ll be able to think about doing! It will also create distress, resentment and increased feelings of stress. Keep nails short and try to substitute another action for the scratching. Below are a few ideas to get you started:
- Offer to help moisturise and massage the itchy skin and turn it into a soothing action
- Encourage them to clench their fists and count to ten.
- Paint a picture on a flat stone and give it a name, this can then be placed on itchy areas to cool the skin
- Apply frozen peas or an ice pack wrapped in a towel to put on very itchy skin
- Pinch or press a nail into the part that itches
- Keep cream in the fridge so it’s cool and soothing when applied
- Use distraction and get them doing something else they enjoy to take their mind off it
- Give them a fidget toy to play with when they feel the urge to scratch
Speak to your child's teachers and make them aware of the situation. Include your child in the discussions and have an agreed plan of how to manage it. Keep cream at school so your child can apply it the skin gets really dry.
If they do itch
Fortunately, skin that has been scratched may take longer to repair. Don’t make a big deal of it. Say ‘it’s ok, I know it’s hard, keep trying you’re doing really well,’ and try not to be cross with them.
Use lots (and lots) of praise. Whenever your child is not scratching or resists the urge to scratch, notice and praise, when they have their cream put on, give them praise. Positive reinforcements makes a big difference and it’s important to celebrate when they’re doing well.
See your doctor
See your GP or a dermatologist for advice if your child’s dry skin worsens or fails to improve.
Dr. Jessamy Hibberd
Dr Hibberd is a London-based Chartered Clinical Psychologist, CBT accreditation from Institute of Clinical Psychology, Kings College.
She runs a clinic where she works with adults experiencing common mental health problems.
Dr Hibberd is the Co-author of “This Book Will Make You…” series, including “Feel Beautiful”, “Happy”, “Confident” – published in 14 countries.
She also works as a media psychologist & is on a mission to make psychology accessible to everyone – nothing is insurmountable.