Severe illness, even if temporary, can provoke a great deal of anxiety for children and their families. Chronic health problems are those that last longer than 12 months and are severe enough to create some limitations in the usual activity. Chronic health problems usually cause even more emotional distress than temporary problems.
Examples of chronic health problems include
Coping with illness may require coping with pain, undergoing tests, taking drugs, and changing diet and lifestyle. A chronic health problem often interferes with a child's education because of frequent absences from school. The illness, as well as side effects from treatments, may impair the child's ability to learn. Even though parents and teachers may have lower academic expectations of ill children, it is important for them to maintain the challenges and encouragement children need to achieve their best.
Effects on children
Illness and hospitalization deprive children of opportunities to play with other children. Other children may even reject or taunt an ill child because of physical differences and limitations. Children can become self-conscious if illness changes their body, particularly when the changes occur during childhood or adolescence rather than being present from birth.
School-aged children may be most affected by the inability to attend school and form relationships with peers.
Adolescents may struggle with their inability to be independent if they need parents and others to help them with many of their daily needs. Adolescents also find it particularly difficult to be viewed as different from their peers.
Parents and family members may overprotect the child or adolescent, discouraging independence.
A hospitalization is a frightening event for children even under the best circumstances. Everything about the hospital stay, including routine admission processes, should be explained to the parents and children so they know what to expect during their stay. Ideally, children will be in a children's hospital or another hospital that focuses on children. In most hospitals, parents are encouraged to stay with their children, even during procedures that may be painful or frightening. Despite their parents' presence, children may become clingy or dependent (regress) while in the hospital.
Effects on parents and other family members
Chronic illness of a child places enormous psychological, financial, emotional, and physical burdens on parents. Sometimes the parents become closer by working together to overcome these burdens. However, often the burdens can strain the relationship. Parents may feel guilty about the illness, particularly if it is genetic, resulted from complications during pregnancy, or was caused by an accident (such as a motor vehicle collision), or behavior of a parent (such as smoking). In addition, medical care can be expensive and can cause the parents to miss work. Sometimes one parent assumes the burden of the care, which can lead to feelings of resentment in the caregiving parent or feelings of isolation in the other. Parents may feel angry with health care providers, themselves, each other, or the child. Parents may also be in denial about the severity of their child's condition. The emotional distress involved in providing care can also make it difficult to form a deep attachment to a disabled or seriously ill child.
Parents who spend a lot of time with an ill child often have less time to devote to other children in the family. Siblings may resent the extra attention the ill child receives and then feel guilty for feeling that way. The ill child may feel guilty about hurting or burdening the family. Parents may be too lenient with the ill child, or they may enforce discipline inconsistently, particularly if the symptoms come and go.
Although a child's illness is always stressful for the entire family, there are several steps a parent can take to help lessen the impact. Parents should learn as much as possible about their child's illness from reliable sources, such as the child's doctors and reliable medical resources. Information obtained from some Internet sources is not always accurate, and parents should check with their doctors about the information they read. Doctors can often refer parents to a support group or another family that has already faced similar issues and can provide information and emotional support.
Additional Resources For Patients, Friends, Supporters, Caregivers, & Family