The Challenges of Parenting When Children Are Ill
MADISON – When a child is sick, particularly with a severe illness, it can be difficult for parents to discipline him or her. Often, parents feel guilty because the child is already coping with so much. Yet discipline is exactly what children need.
"Children need boundaries," says Stephanie Farrell, PhD, clinical psychologist with American Family Children's Hospital. "Only with those boundaries, only with those limits do they feel a sense of security. And that's important at any time, but especially when they are sick and dealing with a sense of uncertainty."
Picking Your Battles
Farrell recommends that parents use positive discipline strategies, such as praising a child when she or he is doing something good. And parents should pick their battles.
"Kids will always push the boundaries and test the limits," Farrell says. "Kids will tend to repeat behaviors that are enforced, while those behaviors that are ignored will typically drop away."
One strategy Farrell suggests is ignoring low-level behaviors, such as fussiness, and being firm in the limits you establish as a parent. It's also important to know the triggers that can set a child off.
"Being overly tired, hungry, not feeling well after a treatment even – those are all triggers that can cause a child to act out. It's important to recognize them and help modify the environment in response," Farrell explains. "For example, if you know your child is extra-fussy when she's hungry, try to ensure you have snacks available."
Knowing Your Own Triggers
And that speaks to another important element for parents – knowing their own triggers. It can be emotionally and even physically draining when a child is ill. When parents are exhausted, they too can find it difficult to cope in a given situation.
"Parental time-outs are important," says Farrell. "It's critical that parents take the opportunity to rest and care for themselves. It's very easy to get swept up in the day-to-day demands of tending to the sick child and the needs of any siblings. But parents need to care for themselves so they can care for their children."
And it's important to remember that all members of the family are affected when someone is sick. Parents need to be aware of the impact the illness can have on siblings.
"Any kind of change affects the whole family 'system', including when someone is ill. It's important to find routine, structure and consistency in the middle of what can be a chaotic time," suggests Farrell.
Caring for Siblings
When a child is sick, it's not uncommon for siblings to act out more to get attention, or feel they're being unfairly disciplined. Farrell cautions parents also to be aware of their own expectations.
"We often hear 'they should know better,' or that a sibling needs to 'rise to the occasion,'" Farrell continues, "but kids need to be kids. Far too often we set expectations that are too high and it can be unfair."
She recommends that parents have a variety of techniques to respond to behavior issues. Humor may work in some situations, a firm tone in other, and sometimes, kids may just need a loving gesture.
"Being a parent takes high energy, creativity and patience," Farrell says, smiling. "Our hope is to provide them with the support and encouragement they need to be confident parents."
Date Published: 04/08/2008