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Supporting the Mental Health of Children with Chronic Illness

Many children living with a chronic illness face various challenges that can impact their overall well-being. Understandably, the journey of managing their physical health, undergoing medical treatments, and facing uncertainties, can lead to feelings of anxiety, fear, and frustration. Providing emotional support to these children is vital to help them navigate their medical journey and promote their overall mental well-being, ensuring that they feel supported, understood, and empowered to thrive!

Areas that chronic illnesses can disrupt a child’s life:

  • Friendships - isolated from school and peer groups for extended periods of time due to treatments or physical limitations, feeling different from peers

  • Social activities - there may be limitations and restrictions, such as differences in diet due to illness, taking medication on a schedule, that can make attending social activities difficult, such as birthday parties or

  • School - feeling behind on schoolwork and assignments due to missing school, or feeling less capable than peers

Children with medical conditions often experience a wide range of feelings and emotions. As discussed in the areas above, they may feel overwhelmed by their diagnosis, anxious about medical procedures, isolated and different from peers due to their condition, or frustrated by various physical limitations. These emotions can take a toll on their mental health. Recognizing and validating these feelings is the first step in providing the emotional support that children need. This can sometimes be stressful for everyone in the family, especially for parents navigating the complexities of caring for their chronically ill child.

Helpful Tips for Parents:

Education and empowerment

Educating children about their medical condition in a developmentally appropriate manner empowers them to understand and take an active role in their medical journey. This helps children feel more in control, which fosters a sense of autonomy and confidence in managing their health. If you are unsure how to educate your child about their diagnosis, a child life specialist can help with many diagnoses such as Diabetes, Chron's, MS, Asthma, Epilepsy, Cystic Fibrosis, and more!

Open and honest communication

Creating an environment of open and honest communication is crucial in supporting children with medical conditions emotionally. Encouraging them to express their thoughts, fears, and concerns openly helps them feel heard and understood. Research show that children adjust better to an unpleasant truth than to the perception that their parents are hiding information from them, which usually breeds room for more misconceptions.

Active listening

Active listening, without interruption, allows children to share their experiences and emotions freely, fostering a sense of trust and safety.

Validating a child’s emotions

Acknowledging and validating their emotions helps them feel understood and supported. Simple statements such as, “it’s normal to be sad about this” or “it’s okay to feel frustrated" let children know that their emotions are valid and accepted.

Building a supportive network

Creating a strong supportive network around the child is vital, such as parents, siblings, extended family, friends, and healthcare providers who genuinely care about the child's well-being. Regular check-ins, conversations, and quality time spent together can help the child feel supported and connected, reducing feelings of isolation.

Supportive peer groups

Connecting children with chronic illness to peer support groups with other children going through the same or a similar healthcare challenge can be highly beneficial. Interacting with others who share similar experiences helps children to feel less alone and provides a platform for sharing coping strategies and a safe space to process difficult experiences. These connections can foster a sense of belonging and normalize their experiences.

Professional support

Sometimes, professional support may be beneficial or necessary to address the educational, psychosocial, or emotional needs of children who are struggling. Child life specialists can

provide developmentally appropriate diagnosis education, guidance for parents, coping strategies, emotional processing, and techniques to manage anxiety, fear, and stress. Other mental health professionals, such as psychologists or therapists can also help as well if a parent is concerned about clinical depression or their child's safety.

Our team at Hearts Connected is available to help you or your child navigate conversations surrounding supporting children with chronic illness. Schedule your free consult today to talk directly with one of our child life specialists about how we can support you and your family.


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