Child Illness Parent Advice Taking Medicine

Explaining illness to sick kids isn’t easy. Childhood illness often leaves kids scared and confused. Because they often don’t completely understand what is happening to them, children have their own ways of dealing with illness that may seem bizarre from an adult point of view.

Often parents attempt to protect sick kids by withholding information about their illnesses. However, this just makes understanding illness more difficult for the child and can result in a state of confusion or fear.

Difficulties Understanding Illness

Without an explanation, young children have difficulty understanding illness in general. Sick kids may be scared and confused, especially in a hospital setting. Because babies and very young children are incapable of understanding illness, they become very scared when separated from their parents.

Difficulty understanding illness can affect older children’s self-esteem. Sick kids may worry that their illness makes them inferior to their friends and that the difference is insurmountable. Not being able to do “normal” childhood activities worsens this feeling of difference and can seriously damage self-esteem.

Kids Dealing with Illness

Explaining illness to sick kids is very important, because a child who has no idea why he’s sick will develop his own ways of dealing with illness. Often children make mistakes when explaining illness and come up with explanations that, to adults, seem illogical or just plain bizarre.

Some sick kids honestly believe they are ill because they have been bad: guilt is often a problem when kids and illness mix. Childhood illness is hard enough for kids to deal with without having them believing that they deserve to be ill.

If young kids don’t feel guilty about getting sick, they may mistake the cause of childhood illness, relating the illness to unrelated events. For instance, a child who gets sick while playing a computer game may decide that computers make him sick.

Sick Kids and Fears

Sick kids can become scared and confused by changes in their bodies caused by the illness, doctors’ visits and hospitalization. Common fears associated with kids and illnesses include:

  • being in a strange place (hospitals, clinics, etc.)
  • being separated from their parents
  • having strangers examining or touching their bodies
  • not being able to go home
  • not knowing what is wrong with them
  • not knowing what will happen during treatment.

Sick kids are often scared because they hurt. However, not all children are willing to admit to being in pain. Sick kids may hide pain, or their fear of pain, in an attempt to be brave or grown up, or simply to avoid having to see a doctor.

Explaining Illness to Sick Kids

How you explain illness to your sick kid depends on the age of the child. In general, it’s best to be as honest as possible with sick kids: Knowing what will happen during an operation or medical procedure is less scary for anyone, child or adult, than not knowing anything.

However, remember that being honest about kids and illness does not necessarily mean telling a child everything. For instance, a young child undergoing cancer surgery needs to know that the surgery will take out the cancer, how she will feel after the surgery and what will come after the surgery. She may not, however, need to know that her illness is potentially fatal. Refrain from talking about the possibility of death with kids: you want to minimize their anxiety, rather than amplify it.

Older children who better understand illness and death may need to be better informed about the severity of their illness. Family support and counseling can help older children who are dealing with serious childhood illness.

Most importantly, professionals recommend against lying to sick kids. Telling a child that an injection won’t hurt doesn’t do any good. It may in fact make the child worried that you’re lying about other medical procedures. Instead, it’s better to tell the child why the injection is needed and that it might hurt a little but will be over quickly.

Carefully preparing children for possible hospital stays or operations is the best method for dealing with childhood illness. Children who know what to expect from a hospital stay are calmer and tend to recover faster from treatment. Staying optimistic generally helps anyone, especially children, recover more quickly from ailments.

When dealing with illness and sick kids, consider using the following strategies:

  • Allow the child to ask the doctor questions.
  • Ask friends and relatives to visit sick kids.
  • Explain what causes the child’s illness and how it is treated.
  • Leave photos of family, small presents and favorite toys in the hospital room.
  • Read books to your sick child about other sick children’s experiences.
  • Take part in special hospital stay preparation programs.
  • Visit the hospital before admission to familiarize the child with the environment.

Sick kids should be encouraged to talk about their fears and to find ways to express their concerns. Illness and pain may make children cry, get angry, have nightmares, wet the bed or act younger than they are. However, their behaviors should be accepted within limits.

Telling sick kids to be brave and act their age is counterproductive. Asking your child to “be a man” or stay strong may make them feel guilty for feeling pain or fear. His fears are valid and should not be dismissed.

Instead, praising appropriate behavior and specific examples of the child’s courage is a more helpful way of dealing with childhood illness. Positive reinforcement is the best tool you can use to keep your child optimistic.

Because very young children and babies get scared when separated from their parents, many hospitals let parents stay in their child’s room all night if necessary. If the hospital does not permit this, tell the child when you will leave and when you will return. Regular telephone calls also keep your sick kid comfortable.

Resources

Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania (2001). Helping children understand mental illness: A resource for parents and guardians. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania Web site: www.mhasp.org/coping/guardians.html#3.

Nemours Foundation (2005). Caring for a seriously ill child. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from the Nemours Foundation Web site: www.kidshealth.org/parent/system/ill/seriously_ill.html.

The Hospital for Sick Children, University of Toronto. (2003). Sick kids launches an online teaching aid for clinicians. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from the Sick Kids Web site: www.sickkids.ca/mediaroom/custom/childphysiology.asp.