By Nico Strydom
Children are supposed to spend their childhood without care, but serious or destructive illness or injury is a reality for many children and their parents, who are worried about the wellbeing of their child.
Cancer and heart disease are just two of the many long-term medical conditions that some children and their parents have to face. To these parents it is a difficult reality to have to find a way to try and handle it.
Dr Terri Henderson, a child psychiatrist practising at Netcare Akeso Kenilworth, says knowledge and communication are essential components of a family’s toolbox. “As a parent your biggest source of concern is the health and safety of your child. To find out that this precious life, which you treasure above your own, is in danger elicits a range of emotions.”
Shock and confusion about why it had to happen to your child, are only a few of the emotions that are going to follow when you as a parent find out that your child is seriously ill. This can be followed by anger because you are now in the dark about your family’s future.
“Eventually there will be some measure of acceptance while you as a family try to adapt, although ongoing concern can be expected. It can also lead to dramatic changes in your daily family life, which includes that one parent has to stay with a child while he or she is being treated in a hospital, or for example having to care for a sick child at home. There is also the possibility that difficult medical decisions will have to be made and the financial consequences of the situation can also be a big additional stress factor.”
Henderson is of the opinion that the extent of the emotional experience will to a large extent depend on the communication, support and explanations given by the treating medical team. “Knowledge is power. A good grasp of your child’s condition, treatment options and prognosis is essential, and you have the right to ask the medical team who are treating your child for information.”
Dimakatso Motiang-Ngoveni, a clinical psychologist at Netcare Akeso Arcadia, further points out that parents must know that they are part of the team that offers their child medical care because their presence and support are of critical importance to the wellbeing of their child.
“When you discuss the situation with your child and his or her brothers and sisters there are many aspects that must be taken into consideration and that are perhaps not self-evident. It is common for children in this situation to feel anger and hold a grudge towards others or themselves. They may also be afraid that that they themselves caused their condition by something they did or said. It is therefore important to assure children from the beginning that they are not responsible,” says Motiang-Ngoveni.
According to the specialists it is important for the child concerned and his or her sibs to know what changes are going to take place in their family life so that they can know what to expect. “Keeping things normal as far as possible offers the family a measure of stability. If a child with a serious medical condition can take part in family occasions and excursions, the whole family must be together at such occasions. To divide the family into separate units is not a recipe for success because the child concerned will then feel that he or she is the cause of the separation,” says Dr Henderson.
Many parents who find themselves in such a situation feel guilty or ashamed and wonder what else they could have done to avoid their child’s illness or injuries. “Therapy is important to address these issues so that parents can open up and begin to work through their emotions,” explains Motiang-Ngoveni.
“All families that go through this type of experience should get counselling and parents should also get counselling for couples. All people are individuals and have different ways of handling things.”
It can also be very beneficial to join a support group for your child’s specific condition as it can help parents to be around people who know best what they are going through.
“The best way for friends and family to be supportive, is to be available and have a practical approach, such as doing shopping, doing the laundry or preparing a meal. If the sick child is at home, family gatherings must be held around the child so that they can feel included.”
Motiang-Ngoveni adds that family and friends should try to treat the child normally as more normal interactions can help them feel more dignified where any special treatment could harm their self-esteem.
Netcare Akeso: https://www.akeso.co.za/Articles/Read/coping-with-the-cares-of-an-unwell-child