Common Behavioral Reactions Of Children And What To Do About Them
Children react differently to the news of a parent's life challenging condition, as well as to the reality of living with it. This discussion is divided into two sections. Symptoms to watch for, and what to do about them.
SYMPTOMS TO WATCH FOR
Children Up To Age 6
Children in this age group may exhibit one or more of the following behaviorial reactions:
- Weight loss
- Difficulty sleeping
- Drop in activity level
- Appear anxious or distressed
- Lack of appetite
- Regressive behavior such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting
Children Ages 6 and up
- A decline in schoolwork or even not wanting to go to school
- Concern about their own health
- Changes in behavior that persist for more than a few weeks such as:
- Aggressive, defiant behavior
- A need to act "perfect"
- Dependent, clingy behavior
- Becoming unusually quiet or fearful
- Failing in tasks at which they are usually successful.
- Not wanting to bring friends home out of embarrassment
- Trouble sleeping or nightmares
- Loss of appetite
- New physical complaints
- Clinging to you, or rejecting you
For issues which are not discussed in the next section which substantially interfere with the child's life, speak with your doctor, a social worker or other mental health professional.
WHAT TO DO IF YOUR CHILD'S REACTION BECOMES WORRISOME
If your children seem confused or scared:
- Remind them that you love them.
- Set aside special time that each child can spend with you or other loved ones.
- Try to stick to reassuring routines, such as reading bedtime stories or checking in with them after school.
- Be together, even if you are each doing different things in the same room.
- Prepare children for changes and side effects of treatment (such as hair loss, vomiting, or tiredness) so they won't be surprised.
- Remind your children that you may seem worse for a while before you get better. Explain that this is part of the treatment that can help make you better in the end.
If your children seem lonely or miss the attention they used to get:
- Help your children talk about their feelings and ask you questions. Let them know you're listening and validate their feelings.
- Find new ways to give your children attention. You may want to leave notes where they will find them or schedule special phone conversations if you're away from home.
- Think of a special treat your children might enjoy.
- Encourage them to talk with other kids or adults to ease their loneliness. Many disease specific non-profits help introduce children to other children.
If your children have stopped doing their regular activities:
- It isn't okay for your kids to respond to the changes at home by stopping normal activities or letting grades and friendships slide. Find out why your children have stopped any usual activities. They may be:
- Feeling tired
- Feeling unhappy
- Having trouble getting along with friends
- Unable to concentrate or succeed
- Talk about the importance of adjusting to these changes at home. Ask your children how you can help them get back to their normal routines.
If your children feel guilty and somehow feel they caused your disease:
- State clearly, and remind them, that they did not cause your condition.
- Explain in simple, age appropriate terms, about your disease.
- Read a children's book together for children of loved ones with your condition.
- Ask a doctor or nurse to explain the facts.
If your children feel angry or resentful that their own lives are affected:
- Validate their feelings. Talk with them about what is causing the anger. Even though you may know the anger comes from fear or fatigue, it is important to listen to what they say and acknowledge their feelings.
- Help your children understand that their anger may be a stand-in for something else. Maybe they're really angry at your disease or at the family. Maybe they're scared or worried. Or maybe they're sad.
- Do your best to try not to get angry back at them. Again, the anger is probably about something else.
If your children start to rebel or get into trouble:
- Tell your children that you understand how they feel. You know that this situation is hard.
- Find out if they are acting out of fear, anger, loneliness, or boredom. Whatever the feeling, remind them that it is okay to feel that way. But it is not okay to act out in this way. If necessary, ask a teacher, pediatrician, or counselor for advice and support.
If a child starts talking about wanting to die of if he or she suddenly gives away favorite possessions:
Seek help from a mental health professional immediately
For techniques to help your children cope, see the Survivorship A to Z document: Tips For Helping Children Cope
Consult a psychosocial professional if you need help with a child. If necessary, set up meetings between the child and a mental health professional such as a social worker, psychotherapist or psychiatrist.