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How to Parent Chronically Ill School-Aged Children and Their Siblings
A.J. is a 9-year-old female newly diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, which is the most common childhood cancer, accounting for about 30% of all childhood cancers (American Cancer Society, 2005). She has recently been admitted to an inpatient oncology floor at a children’s hospital to begin the first round of chemotherapy for her cancer. P.J. is her single mother, who is also the guardian of A.J.’s 12-year-old and 5-year-old brothers. Since this is the first time any of her children have been admitted to the hospital, P.J. is very overwhelmed and concerned for her daughter’s life, and she is also worried about how A.J.’s brothers’ lives will be changed.
Imagine that you are the parent of a family similar to this, with two or more healthy children, when suddenly one of your children is diagnosed with a chronic illness, such as cancer, diabetes, or another serious childhood disease. Some of the first things that may run through your mind may be “How will this change my child’s life?” “Will my child suffer?” or “Is my child going to die?” Another important topic that parents do not immediately consider is how to continue to effectively parent the ill child as well as his or her siblings.
In addition to administering drugs and taking care of the child while in the hospital, nurses, as well as other healthcare professionals, play a pivotal role in helping the parents learn how to continue parenting their children effectively while dealing with the newly diagnosed disease. Although families of children of all ages need support while experiencing a chronic illness, the focus of this article will be the school-age child (6 to 12 years old) who is diagnosed with a chronic illness and helping the parent(s) to continue to parent all their children, ill as well as healthy. As the nurse, understanding what the families experience is essential to providing comprehensive care (Ward-Smith, Kirk, Hetherington, & Hubble, 2005). The nurse will be responsible for helping to answer the many questions that the child and the family will have. Even though the family may not mention it, the nurse should discuss ways to successfully continue with parenting the chronically ill school-age child along with his or her siblings.
Children with a chronic illness are typically treated differently than the other children in the family who are healthy. While watching the ill child receive the extra attention required by the illness, the healthy children may feel ignored and become jealous of the attention that the ill sibling is receiving (Ward-Smith et al., 2005). Children may not understand the illness and think that it is not fair that they are not ill also, or they may be worried about their own health, since they do not want to “catch” the disease (Batte, Watson, & Arness, 2005).
Immediately after being diagnosed with a chronic illness, the school-age child may be scared, confused, or upset. All children deal with problems differently, depending on personality, age, and maturity level (KidsHealth, 2005). Younger or less mature children often view illness as something that they personally caused. Older or more mature children are more likely to understand that illness is something that can happen regardless of their actions.
By school age, children begin to understand the concepts of illness and death, and they begin to experience a wide range of emotions about illness and death, such as guilt, anger, sadness, and shame. Some children have a difficult time expressing emotions and often react by withdrawing, having poor performance in school, and being aggressive (People Living with Cancer, 2005).
Here are some suggestions for parents dealing with an ill child:
Parenting the siblings of a chronically ill child can often pose an even bigger challenge. Unintentionally, parents may begin to pay less attention to the siblings. This may be due to the frequent hospital trips of the ill child for care. Some things that healthcare providers can help parents with, regarding the ill child’s siblings, are as follows:
As a healthcare professional, it is part of your job to help parents and families of newly diagnosed chronically ill children understand what types of things they might expect in the future regarding their child’s illness. Healthcare professionals should encourage parents to maintain as normal of a household as possible during this time. Although this is not one of the first things parents think about after their child is diagnosed with a chronic illness, it is very important to remind them about the challenges they may face with their ill child, as well as the ill child’s siblings. By using the information just described, the situations experienced by families may become less stressful and easier to handle.
About the Author
Address correspondence to Katrina D. Lewis at katrinad firstname.lastname@example.org.
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