Child Illness Parent Advice Long Term Illness

Explaining long-term illness such as cancer or diabetes to sick children is one of the hardest tasks for a parent. However, understanding chronic illness helps kids comply with medication and treatment and also helps them understand why their lifestyle differs from that of their classmates and friends.

Understanding Chronic Illness

Eighteen percent of American kids live with some form of long-term illness. Chronic illness ranges from mild cases of asthma and allergies to serious cases of cancer and life-long conditions such as diabetes.

As a parent, understanding chronic illness makes explaining long-term illness to children easier. To fully explain a child’s illness, you will need to spend time with child’s doctor, read brochures and pamphlets and consult with parents whose children have similar conditions.

Questions that might help you understand your child’s chronic illness include:

  • How does the illness affect normal body functions?
  • Is there a cure, or is the illness a chronic condition?
  • What causes the illness?
  • What symptoms will the child experience?
  • What treatments are available for the condition?
  • Will treatment require lifestyle or diet restrictions?

Explaining Long-Term Illness to Sick Children

Explaining long-term illness to sick children should be done with as much honesty as possible. This is not to say you have to explain everything about cancer or other serious illnesses to a young child. However, the child should have enough information to understand why he is sick, how his sickness will affect him and what treatment is required.

Explaining long-term illness is important because a child with a good understanding of his chronic condition is more likely to comply with medication schedules and treatment. Children who have difficulty understanding chronic conditions are more likely to resist medication and be frightened or confused during hospital visits.

Older children with diabetes, cancer or other chronic conditions may ask about death. This is often the case when cancer is diagnosed because popular culture has come to equate cancer with death.

How much of the complications you choose to discuss, including death, depends on the maturity of your child. If you do discuss the possibility of death with your child, it should be balanced with a discussion of treatment and positive outcomes for the long-term illness.

However, limit the discussion with younger children to why they’re sick and what treatment is needed: The possibility of death due to long-term illness need not be brought up unless absolutely necessary.

Coping Strategies for Children with Long-Term Illness

Long-term illness coping strategies are necessary for not only the sick child but also for his parents and siblings. Parents often have to explain why their sick child has restrictions on his lifestyle while helping him to not feel ashamed for feeling different from peers.

These differences may be subtle, like diet restrictions to control diabetes, or very obvious, such as hair loss due to cancer chemotherapy. Because such differences can lead to self-esteem problems and emotional disorders, parents need to be ready to give their sick child coping strategies.

Although it’s tempting to shower sick children with attention, relax discipline and center life on the child, it’s actually better for the child if life continues as normally as possible. This includes maintaining limits on inappropriate behavior and having the child attend school as much as possible. Maintaining a regular schedule also makes it easier to stick to a medication schedule.

Coping Strategies for Parents and Siblings

Parents and siblings also need coping strategies. The stress associated with caring for children with chronic conditions often makes divorce rates slightly higher in families with long-term illness. Parents must remember that by taking time for themselves, they’re actually better able to help their child. Respite may come from family members, friends or social workers. Taking time to relax and recuperate is one of the best coping strategies for parents caring for children with long-term illness.

Siblings of sick children may feel resentful if the sick child’s condition takes up most of their parents’ time. That resentment is often followed by guilt for thinking “bad” thoughts about their sick brother or sister. Explaining long-term illness to siblings helps: Their understanding of chronic conditions helps them understand that the sick child isn’t getting preferential treatment.

No matter how time-consuming caring for a child with long-term illness may be, it’s important for parents to spend time with the child’s siblings as well. Just as time away helps couples “escape” the stress of care giving, time a parent dedicates to his other children helps siblings deal with their feelings towards the sick child.

Sick children, siblings and parents can all benefit from support groups that are available through the community, the hospital or even online. Understanding chronic conditions is easier if children have a chance to talk with other kids undergoing treatment for the same long-term illness.


Children’s Hospital Boston (n.d.). Coping emotionally. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from the Children’s Hospital Boston Web site:

Nemours Foundation (2005). Caring for a seriously ill child. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from the Nemours Foundation Web site:

Spinetta, J. (1998). The parent of the child with cancer: Coping strategies. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from the ICCCPO Web site:

University of Michigan Health System (n.d.). Children with chronic conditions. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from the University of Michigan Health System Web site: