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When your young child is seriously ill…

Posted 20th June 2019

One of the biggest challenges for a parent is when a child is diagnosed with a serious illness. This can be experienced within the family as a trauma, akin to a bomb exploding – with all the pieces landing in different places.  The landscape looks different.

There are a range of emotions which might be experienced – fear, anxiety, anger, guilt, powerlessness. As parents, we are charged to look after our children – that is our job.  When our child becomes seriously ill, we can feel that we have failed in this primal task.  In the midst of trying to manage our own tumultuous feelings, there is the added difficulty of knowing how to help our child.

Children take their lead from their parents and the adults around them. When there is so much which is changing – being in hospital, painful procedures, strangers – children need as much consistency as possible. When parenting an ill child confusion and anxiety abounds, it is even more important for your child to feel that the main structures of his / her life are the same – that their parent(s) / carer(s) are still here, providing reassurance and containment, and that, as far as is possible, life can continue as normal. It can be very hard to keep family life continuing in as ordinary a way as possible.  As far as possible boundaries around behaviour need to be kept.  This will help your child feel contained and safe.  This can feel particularly difficult when parents feel so anxious and upset about their child having to undergo possibly painful and scary treatment.  When this is allied with feelings of guilt it is particularly hard to be firm and maintain these behavioural boundaries. However, if this can be managed, children will feel safer – and know that their grown ups are still in charge.  It is important to keep talking to children about what is happening – using age appropriate language.

The hope is that by maintaining consistency, talking clearly to your child about what is going on & being as calm & reassuring as possible, that you can help to minimise the psychological effects of the illness on your child and help foster the capacity for resilience in your child. Being able to make sense of the experience will helps your child’s coping mechanisms. 

Ill and frightened children often regress to an earlier developmental stage – they might revert to sucking their thumb, for example, or needing their ‘snuggly’ which they had previously given up, or bed wetting. It is important to allow them to use whatever they want to in order to help themselves manage. They will move out of this stage once they feel better.  In particular, having a favourite toy which they can act their experience out with, can be very helpful. So you might find teddy being put to bed or undergoing painful injections.  They are trying to make sense of what has happened / is happening by passing on the experience to their toy.

There are often also financial implications when a child is seriously ill – one or both parents might have to stop work for a while; there are often travelling / parking costs in relation to hospital visits. This can be particularly hard for single parents or those already in financial difficulty. Allow yourself to accept any practical help offered. 

It is very usual for parents to feel angry in the wake of a diagnosis. These feelings often seem confusing and irrational and can be directed variously towards the medical profession (there might have been numerous visits to the GP before a diagnosis is made, or parents might have felt that their concerns were initially dismissed by the doctors), towards fate – ‘how could this have happened?’ or towards ourselves – ‘what did we do wrong?’; there can be a desperate need to find a cause for what has happened in order to make some sense of things.

The impact of serious illness in a family will have a significant impact on siblings too.  They might feel angry, be fearful that they might have caused their sibling’s illness, resentment of all the parents’ attention going to their ill sibling or their sibling receiving treats and special attention. They might also exhibit behaviour of a much younger child at these times.  Try and spend time with the ill child’s siblings too.

Finally, parents and carers can also find that they differ from each other in the way they approach the diagnosis and the management of an ill child.  This will reflect the possible difference with which they themselves might respond to trauma, often as a result of their own history.  It can highlight difficulties and differences in the parental or couple relationship, which can lead to conflict and added pressure at a difficult time.  Support for you as parent(s) / carer(s) is very important.  Local organisations which can provide support include:  We Hear You https://www.wehearyou.org.uk/ and The Harbour (for adults) https://www.the-harbour.org.uk/.  Also here at The Bridge our services include a fee paying psychotherapy service which can be accessed by children, whole families or by parents.  There might be other organisations specific to your area.

Above all, it’s important to recognize that a child having a serious illness does impact on the whole family and it’s the whole family who may need support both during the illness and afterwards.  The impact of the illness reaches well beyond the direct impact on the child who is ill.