Chronic illness is an illness that may last throughout a person's life, although the frequency and severity of symptoms can change. Examples of chronic illnesses often seen in children and teens include asthma, eczema (atopic dermatitis), allergies to foods and/or the environment, eosinophilic esophagitis and diabetes.
A chronic illness can have a negative effect not only on a child's physical state but also on his or her emotional and mental well-being. It is important to address children's fears and anxieties that may arise if they have a chronic illness.
Physical and Emotional Health Affect Each Other
Mental health and physical health impact one another. Increased physical symptoms can cause a rough time on the child's emotional health. Chronic illnesses can interfere with children's happiness and how they feel about themselves. When children are distressed and unhappy, their illness may be harder to control. Many things having to do with a chronic illness can affect the child or teen's emotional health. Some examples include:
- A child may need to complete medical tests. These can be invasive and scary
- A child may be sad and grieving because of a doctor's suggestion to remove a pet from the home or to limit the child's activities
- A child may feel "different" than peers
- Medicine side effects can affect children's moods and how they feel about themselves and their bodies
- Infants and younger children, when sick, can be clingy, lethargic, sad, fussy, mad, tearful, or withdrawn
Children and teens often feel unhappy when sick. These mood changes often improve quickly as your child begins to feel better physically. However, when a child or teen with a chronic illness has mood changes that continue or return, this may signal a problem that needs professional attention. The good news is that it can be helped.
Areas to keep an eye on are:
- Changes in eating and sleeping habits
- Changes in school performance
- Mood swings
- Negative self-comments about the way he or she looks or feels
- Not cooperating with medical care
- Displays of strong fear or anger
Some children and teens can become very upset and scared about medical tests. Talk with your child's healthcare provider about how best to prepare you and your child for these tests. For instance, before the test occurs, your child may tell you whether he or she wants an explanation of the test or to see the medical equipment and/or room in which the test will take place. In addition, pay attention to whether your child or teen:
- Starts to withdraw from friends and family
- Shows less interest in things he or she previously enjoyed
- Looks unhappy, sad, or angry
- Fights with siblings and friends
- Begins to talk about death
If you are worried about changes that begin to happen, talk with your healthcare provider about getting professional help.
Download the related Understanding Booklet: Children and Chronic Illness, Protecting Your Child's Emotional Health (pdf).