When your child has a cold or fever, you likely pamper him with soup and some extra hugs. But when you have a child going through surgery or a chronic illness, it's one of the most difficult tasks a parent can face. You have to handle your child's medical needs plus his emotional ones.
As one of America's Top Doctors, a mother of two grown children and a physician and surgeon with over 25 years' experience, New York City-based Jacqueline Jones, MD, understands there is no greater responsibility as a parent than ensuring a child's optimum health. With that in mind, Dr. Jones has written Medical Parenting: How to Navigate Health, Wellness & the Medical System With Your Child, a new book that aims to help parents take control of their child's health. That way parents can feel confident in their decisions. Told from a physician and mother's perspective, Dr. Jones helps parents connect with their children on a personal level, and guides parents through the maze of today's medical system.
Here are her tips on caring for a sick child.
It's important to be clear and open when helping a child adjust to a serious medical condition. You can't promise that everything will be fine. "You definitely don't want to lie," says Dr. Jones. But be sure you give her information in an age-appropriate fashion, says Dr. Jones. "You have to be careful with the amount of information that they can process," she says. "As they can process it, you can give them more information." Let her know that she is sick and will be getting lots of care. The hospital, tests, medicine and/or surgery may seem scary. But they'll help your child feel better. Don't say "This won't hurt," if the procedure will be painful. Explain that yes, it may cause discomfort. But reassure him that the feeling will be temporary. Dr. Jones also suggests putting together a team of specialists—especially including your pediatrician—who can help you address your child's questions directly or give you advice on how to do so.
Have him express his feelings.
Your child likely has many emotions about the changes impacting his body. Gently encourage him to express what's on his mind. Ask what he's feeling and listen to him. Kids don't have to only use words to express themselves; music, drawing or writing are other ways they can show their emotion. Listen to his concerns and fears and affirm that they're understandable. Let him speak before giving your own explanations. And don't hassle or pressure him to speak. "You may have to wait for them to talk when they're ready," says Dr. Jones. "Be there ready to listen."
Know that you might not have all the answers.
If your child says, "Why me?" you can say "I don't know." Tell him that he is getting treatment for his condition, if that's indeed true. If he says, "It's just not fair" or "Why do I have such bad luck?" acknowledge that he's right. "Tell them that bad things can happen to good people and they're going to be stronger because of this," says Dr. Jones. If he says, "Am I going to die?" your answer will vary based on your child's age, maturity level and medical situation. Feel free to turn to your spiritual, religious and cultural beliefs about death. (Just avoid saying that death is "going to sleep." Otherwise, he may not want to nap or got to bed at night.) Or reach out to the support team you assembled to help you out.
Keep life normal.
It's tricky yet important to treat a sick child as normal as possible. He'll definitely require some extra TLC. Yet, you still need to set limits on unacceptable behavior and avoid overindulgence, regardless of the circumstances. Spoiling and coddling will only make it harder for your child to return to normal when he returns home and make your other children resent him. "Let kids be kids as much as they can," says Dr. Jones.
Consider getting your child professional counseling if his feelings are interfering with daily function or he seems withdrawn, depressed or has drastic changes in eating and sleeping unrelated to his illness. You can also have him join a support group with others going through the same thing, says Dr. Jones. Little ones can go to the hospital playroom to meet and interact with kids like them, she says.
Attend to your own needs. Get plenty of rest. Pay attention to your relationships with your partner and friends. Don't give up hobbies or friendships. And ask for help when you need it. Let relatives and friends help with errands, carpools, etc. You can't do it all and that's ok. "If you're a total mess, how are you going to be supportive," says Dr. Jones. "Make sure that you as a parent and a couple are as healthy and strong as you can be."