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Illness in Children

by Moira Szilagyi, MD, PhD

Severe illness, even if temporary, can provoke a great deal of anxiety for children and their families. Chronic problems, such as asthma, diabetes, hearing or vision impairments, and cerebral palsy, or disability usually cause even more emotional distress.

Coping with illness may require coping with pain, undergoing tests, taking drugs, and changing diet and lifestyle. Chronic illness 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.

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. Parents and family members may overprotect the child, discouraging independence.

Did You Know...

  • Sometimes one parent assumes the burden of the care and later resents it, while the other parent may feel isolated.

Chronic illness of a child places enormous psychologic, 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 a 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.

Hospitalization is a frightening event for children even under the best circumstances, and it should be avoided whenever possible. If hospitalization is needed, it should be as brief as possible, preferably in a part of the hospital used exclusively for children. In most hospitals, parents are encouraged to stay with their children, even during painful or fear-provoking procedures. Despite their parents' presence, children may become clingy or dependent (regress) while in the hospital.

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.

Services needed by the child may involve care by medical specialists, nurses, home health personnel, mental health personnel, and personnel from a variety of other services. A case manager may be needed to help coordinate medical care for children with complex chronic illness. The child's doctor, nurse, social worker, or other professional can serve as the case manager. The case manager can also ensure that the child receives training in social skills and that the family and child receive appropriate counseling, education, and psychologic and social support, such as respite care. Regardless of who coordinates services, the family and child must be partners in the process.

Did You Know...

  • Parents may spend more time or be more lenient with the ill child than with siblings, who may then become resentful and feel guilty about their resentment.

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