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Children and Illness

Children and Illness

WebMD Feature

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 anxiety.

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.

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