The Effects of Parental Illness or Disability on Children

The chronic illness or disability of a parent can present a monumental challenge in the life of a child that can alter their development and interfere with normal psychological progression. With approximately 5-15% of children dealing with a parental illness or disability, it is important to increase awareness of the stress and strain induced by this situation in order to be able to help children manage these difficulties more efficiently.

Open Communication is Key
Experts agree that parents should be honest and forthright about their illness or disability with their children.  Accurate, age-appropriate information will help children better understand what is happening.  Conversations should be open to questions regarding the specifics of the disorder and should address particulars like how it will affect the children personally. It is important, however, not to overwhelm children with too much information and only give them as much information as they can comfortably digest.  This will depend largely on age and emotional development level.

Stress Experienced by Children of the Ill or Disabled
Many factors can seriously affect the stress levels of children who are living with and caring for ill or disabled parents.  Two of the most prevalent stressors are the emotions displayed by the parent and the ominous fear of the unknown.
* The emotions of the parent.  Especially in a mother/daughter relationship, the emotions manifested by the parent can have a profound and prolonged effect on the child.  Often, there is an increase in anxiety or the onset of chronic depression as the child attempts to cope with the sadness or unhappiness of the parent.
* Fear of the unknown.  Much of the stress experienced by children centers around issues to which there are often no definitive answers.  Children may question how long the illness will last, or they may fear that their parent will die. For children, this fear is debilitating and disconcerting because they have fewer resources for obtaining emotional support from friends or other family members.

Common Reactions
As the family structure is disrupted and roles shift due to illness or disability, children may experience number different reactions to their parent’s hardship.
* Avoidance.  More often seen in males than females, avoidance is a defense mechanism characterized by the physical and psychological separation from the parent in order to cope with the illness or disability.
* Anger/guilt.  This reaction tends to be cyclical in nature and begins as the child experiences anger at the parent for being ill.  They then feel intense guilt for being angry as they realize that the parent is not at fault.
* Depression and anxiety.  A sickness or disability causes increased levels of anxiety and depression as the family structure and daily routines are compromised by the special needs and of the afflicted parent.  A very young child may perceive that their needs are not being attended to and an older child may feel the pressure of being powerless to help.

When a parent becomes ill or disabled, children can become frightened, insecure, and uncertain.  Understanding the emotions and subsequent reactions that children have to parental illness or disability is the first step to helping young people manage such a crisis.

References:
Worsham, N.L. and Crawfore, E.K. (2005).  Parental illness and adolescent development.  The prevention Researcher. 12(4), 3-6
Rizzo, V.M. and Kirkland, K.A. (2005).  Adolescent reactions to parental cancer:  Strategies for providing support.  The Prevention Researcher. 12(4), 10-12

About Melissa J. Murphy

Melissa Murphy is in the business of building self-esteem, instilling confidence, and restoring hope in those who have given up on life. She is currently completing her degree in psychology, and has worked as a life coach and faith-based counselor for more than a decade. By bringing her personal life experiences into her work, Melissa is able to help others survive their wounds, heal their pain, and live a life of success despite having incurred overwhelming emotional scars. For the last few years, she has discovered the joys of writing and has published a growing number of articles. Melissa currently resides in the Houston area with her husband and her two wonderful children.

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