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Children's Health

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Chronic Illness May Affect a Child's Social Development

WebMD Health News

June 22, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Chronically ill children tend to be more submissive and less socially outgoing than healthy children, a new study shows. Further, kids who live with pain and physical restrictions may be more likely to have problems relating to their peers.

Study author Susan Meijer, DrS, a behavioral researcher at Utrecht University Medical Center in the Netherlands, and colleagues explored the effect of disease on social development in children 8 to 12 years of age. More than 100 chronically ill children and their parents participated in the study, which was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

The children's diagnoses included cystic fibrosis (a hereditary disease characterized by lung disease and problems with the pancreas), diabetes, arthritis, the skin inflammation eczema, and asthma. The children and their parents were asked about the children's social activity, behavior, self-esteem, physical restrictions, and pain.

Compared with healthy Dutch children, the participants had fewer positive peer interactions and exhibited less aggressive behavior. Compared with other chronically ill participants, children with cystic fibrosis and eczema had more social anxiety. And kids with physical restrictions and pain had significantly less social involvement than others.

Researchers say the reasons for these findings are not yet clear. "Sick kids may unconsciously avoid aggressive exchanges that they're unable to deal with," Meijer says. "It's also possible that sick kids don't learn some social skills because they receive less feedback about inappropriate behavior than healthy kids."

Meijer tells WebMD that intervention programs can boost social development in chronically ill children. Child psychiatrists say school involvement and parental strategies may be even more effective.

"When kids are out of school for long periods, they miss both cognitive and social learning," says Nina Bass, MD, a behavioral medicine specialist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. "And no matter how hard they try, parents can't give kids the same social experience they get at school."

Bass tells WebMD that chronically ill children need both individual and group social activities. "An example of an individual activity is corresponding with a pen pal; an example of a group activity is participating in a book club," Bass says. "And if the child can't keep pace, parents should identify some better alternatives."

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