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Typical Responses to a Parent's Illness

Each age in childhood has it's own set of expected challenges and behavior within the course of normal development. By understanding what these are, you may be able to better recognize what difficulties may possibly be related to the additional strain of a parent's illness.

Infants and Toddlers (0-2 years)
• unable to understand or appreciate details of diagnosis, prognosis or treatment planning
• sensitive to changes in routine or changes in caregivers
• shift to earlier less mature behaviors (fussiness, difficulty with separations or bedtime)

Preschoolers (3-6 years)
• limited ability to appreciate the details of diagnosis, prognosis and treatment planning
• vulnerable to misunderstanding the reason illness occurs and self-blame
• even with understanding, may require repeated explanations
• increased sensitivity and difficulty with feelings (they may be very weepy about small frustrations, and calm or silly when discussing the illness)
• themes of illness may become present in their play
• sensitive to changes in routines and rules: decreased limits and extra treats can sometimes worsen behavior

School-Age Children (7-12 years)
• able to better understand and appreciate most details of a diagnosis, prognosis and treatment planning
• understanding will be limited however: may have more difficulty with nuance and uncertainty
• lack emotional maturity, so especially prone to anxiety around illness
• may seek extensive information to help tolerate their anxiety (wanting to visit the hospital, see a surgical scar, etc)
• may become preoccupied with the unfairness of illness
• sensitive to the ways an illness may impact their ability to participate and perform in their normal activities (school and hobbies)
• cope by doing things, either related to the illness or established activities
• may swing between apparent distress and happy engagement in normal activities
• may have difficulty speaking directly about strong or difficult feelings

Adolescents (13-18 years)
• fully capable of understanding and appreciating the details of diagnosis, prognosis and treatment planning, including the uncertainty
• may turn to friends and other important adults as primary sources of support
• may seem very selfish to parents as they fail to pitch in the way parents may expect
• may be prone to impulsive risk-taking behavior to manage their distress
• prone to guilt and unhappiness as the demands of a parent’s illness are at odds with normal developmental tasks
• young adults may be less eager to pursue greater independence in this setting