When a child falls ill, parents often have a lot of questions and concerns: How sick is my kid? How serious are these symptoms? When should I call the doctor? How do I keep my child calm when she is in pain?
Knowing how to explain your child’s illness to her is essential to keeping your child calm. If your child understands what the illness involves and whether its short-term, long-term or mental, she will be more willing to comply with treatment and medication regimens.
Kids and Illness
Dealing with childhood illnesses is an inevitable part of being a parent. However, many people have difficulty explaining illness to sick kids. When kids have trouble understanding illness, they may become scared or confused. Some sick kids invent wild reasons for being sick as a way of dealing with illness.
Confronting children with honest explanations of their illness provides them with the tools they need for understanding illness and medical procedures. Exactly how much information a child needs depends on their age, maturity level and the seriousness of the particular childhood illness. Discussing sickness openly will make it easier to deal with kids and illness.
Kids and Medication
Giving medicine to children is tricky: Parents often run into compliance issues as kids try to avoid taking medicine. Even normally obedient children may resist taking medicine. Compliance is important when treating symptoms, especially when taking medicine such as antibiotics that must be taken for prescribed amounts of time.
Consequently, parents have to find ways to ensure that kids comply with taking medication. Along with compliance issues, parents also have to be careful when mixing medication that their children are taking. Because mixing different medications can be dangerous, doctors should be informed of all medications that a child takes, including over-the-counter cold and headache medications, to avoid problems with kids and medication.
Children with Short-Term Illness
Short-term illnesses such as colds, flu or food poisoning make sick children miserable and often challenge a parent’s coping strategies. When children understand their short-term illness, parents have an easier time treating the symptoms of their sick children.
Explaining short-term illness to kids helps them understand that they won’t be sick forever and that they didn’t do anything to deserve being sick. Children also remember to wash hands regularly and take other steps to prevent the illness from spreading to other family members when they understand short-term illness.
Children with Long-Term Illness
Sick children need help understanding chronic illness. Cancer, diabetes and other chronic conditions are frightening: Explaining long-term illness to children helps them understand their condition and what’s happening to them. In order to fully understand chronic illness themselves, parents need to ask questions of their doctor and read up on the nature of the disease.
Sick children who understand why they are sick are more likely to comply with treatment and medication, and are less likely to develop unhealthy coping strategies. Parents also need coping strategies to deal with the stress that comes from caring for children with long-term illness.
Children with Mental Illness
Sick children are not always physically ill: Children with mental illnesses such as ADHD and depression also need medical treatment. Understanding mental illness is often a challenge for children. Because many have had symptoms of mental illness since birth, children with mental illness see their conditions as normal.
Compliance with medication is extremely important when treating mental illness. Explaining mental illness to children by likening it to physical illness helps children understand they need medication and therapy to feel better. Family therapy and respite care offers advice and coping strategies for parents of children with mental illness.
Calling the doctor about sick children isn’t necessary if children have mild symptoms such as a runny nose or mild fever. Seeking medical attention is best left for more serious symptoms.
Identifying symptoms that warrant a doctor’s call is a skill that generally takes time to learn. Severe pain, chronic diarrhea and vomiting all warrant a call to the doctor. Parents are, however, generally good judges of their children’s health and should trust their instincts when it comes to identifying symptoms.
Talking to the Doctor
A doctor’s appointment for sick children can be stressful and chaotic. Without a pre-written list of questions, parents can forget what to ask the doctor.
If parents do forget to ask questions about medication, they can always get answers by talking to pharmacists. Concerns about mixing medication, dosage and side effects can be answered by pharmacists.
During hospital visits, talking to nurses can help parents of sick children can learn about hospital policies their children’s well-being. Avoid cell phone calls, take notes and listen carefully when talking to the doctor.
American Academy of Child and Adult Psychiatry (2002). Talking to kids about mental illness. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from the AACAP Web site: www.aacap.org/publications/factsfam/84.htm.
KidsMeds Inc. (2000). Getting kids to take medicine. Retrieved February 21, 2006, from the KidsMeds Inc. Web site: www.kidsmeds.com/tipsfortaking.htm.
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.