Childhood Cancer

Your Child in the Hospital

Behavior changes under extreme stress

When a child is very ill or seriously injured, parents can experience physical, emotional, financial, and spiritual stress. The crisis can result in difficult feelings and behaviors.

Dishonesty. Children feel safe when their parents are honest with them. If parents keep secrets from children, or try to protect them from bad news, they feel isolated and fearful. A child might think, “If Mom and Dad won’t tell me, it must be really bad,” or, “Mom won’t talk about it. I guess there’s nobody that I can tell about how scared I am.”

Denial. Denial is a type of unconscious dishonesty. This occurs when parents say, “Everything will be just fine,” or, “It won’t hurt a bit.” This type of pretending increases the distance between child and parent, leaving the child with no support. However horrible the truth, it seldom is as terrifying as a half-truth upon which a child’s imagination builds.

Depression. Depression can develop in parents of seriously hurt or sick children. Parents should seek professional help if they regularly experience any of the following symptoms: changes in sleeping patterns (sleeping too much, waking up frequently during the night), appetite disturbances (eating too little or too much), fatigue, panic attacks, inability to experience pleasure, feelings of sadness and despair, poor concentration, social withdrawal, feelings of worthlessness, suicidal thoughts, and drug or alcohol abuse. Depression can be treated with counseling, medication, or both.

Loss of temper. All parents lose their tempers sometimes. They lose their tempers with spouses, healthy children, pets, even strangers. But anger can be especially painful when the target is a sick child. If stressed, parents can give themselves a ten-minute quiet time in private to regroup. If, despite their best efforts, parents find they are too stressed to control their tempers, a professional counselor can help them explore new ways of coping.

I had always taught my children that feeling angry sometimes was normal, but we had to make good choices about what to do with it. Hitting other people or breaking things was a bad choice; punching pillows or running around outside were good choices. But, as with everything else, they learned the most from watching how I handled my anger, and during the hard months of treatment my temper was short. When I found myself thinking of hitting them, I’d say, in a very loud voice, “I’m afraid I’m going to hurt somebody so I’m going in my room for a timeout.” If my husband was home, I’d take a warm shower to calm down; if he wasn’t, I’d just lock myself in my bedroom, sit on the bed, and take as many deep breaths as it took to calm down.

Unequal application of household rules. Parents guarantee family problems if the ill child enjoys favored status while the siblings must do extra chores. It is hard to know when to insist that a child with a long-term illness or injury resume making his bed or setting the table, but it must be done. Siblings should know from the very beginning that any child in the family, if sick, will be excused from chores, but must start again when he is able.

Overindulgence. Parents often overindulge sick or injured children.

When my daughter became very sick, I bought her everything that I saw that was pretty and lovely. I kept thinking that, if she died, she would die happy because she’d be surrounded by all these beautiful things. Even when I couldn’t really afford it, I kept buying. I realize now that I was doing it to make me feel better, not her. She needed cuddling and loving, not clothes and dolls.

Overprotection. Parents should ask the doctor what changes in physical activity are necessary for safety and not impose restrictions that go beyond this. Letting children become involved in sports or neighborhood play may be difficult, but it helps them feel better as well as develop friendships.