Children and Illness
Children and Illness
We're all aware that certain illnesses are more common in
kids -- the common cold, chicken pox, croup. But the diseases themselves are
not the only thing unique to children: The experience of being ill is also
different for kids, and each age group has a different understanding of
"being sick." As a parent, it helps to know what your child is thinking
and feeling when he becomes ill so that you can help comfort your child and
teach him or her about being sick... and, of course, about staying well.
1. Help kids understand that getting sick -- although it's no fun -- is a normal part of life.
Minor illnesses, such as colds and intestinal disturbances,
are common, especially in the early years: According to the 1980 National
Health Interview Survey, children from age 1 to 3 years experience six to nine
illnesses per year. From age 4 to 10 years, children develop, on average, four
to six illnesses per year. In addition, because illnesses typically spread to
family members and friends, children may either experience being ill or observe
the experience of others who are ill between 20 and 30 times a year, depending
upon the age of the child and the size of the family. So from the get-go,
children are familiar with the experience of being sick, but it helps them to
hear from you that everyone experiences illness from time to time.
2. Recognize that children's earliest understanding of illness is social and emotional.
Illness is an emotionally charged experience for all of us.
In addition to the general malaise we all feel, illness can bring pain, fear
and anxiety, especially with a trip to the doctor's office. This is
particularly true for young children. It's important for you to remain positive
during your child's episodes with illness to help minimize the fear and
A child's social world is turned upside down, too, when
illness strikes. Eating and sleep habits are usually disrupted. Routine daily
activities -- like going to a play group, school or football game -- are
interrupted. Since kids thrive on routines, the change in normal, daily
activities can be upsetting and disorienting. Reassure your child that once he
or she is well, normal routines will return.
An additional lesson kids learn about being sick is that
others step in to care for and comfort them. In this way, getting sick has a
lot to do with learning about yourself and others. Kids not only benefit
directly from the care and love you offer when they're sick, but they can learn
from your example how to care for others, such as siblings or pets, in a
similar, empathizing way.
3. Help kids move toward a more logical understanding of illness.
Children's cognitive understanding of how illness occurs is
a gradual process, which changes with the child's development. Typically,
children ages 2 through 7 years think in ways that are magical and in terms of
their own immediate experiences, and this is how they will think about illness,
as well. For example, if a 3-year-old gets sick on a bright, sunny day, she may
think the sun caused her to get sick. Children may also attribute their feeling
sick to something more personal, like something they did that day that called
for a reprimand, like hitting the dog. It's important for parents to recognize
that children of this age may experience guilt and shame around an illness, and
to let them know that getting sick is not their fault.