Common reactions of patients to illness and hospital care
Having a child or teenager in the hospital causes many changes in your family’s everyday routine. When this happens, it is normal for your child or teen to act differently than usual. Every child or teen reacts to stress in her own way, but it can help to understand some of the ways many children or teenagers react.
The most common reactions to illness and hospital care are regression, aggression, and withdrawal.
Children and teens sometimes regress as a way of coping with a new situation. Regression means going back to an earlier stage of life. Children or teens who regress act as if they are younger than they really are. For example, your child might:
- Start wetting the bed again, even if she was recently potty trained or has been using the toilet for a long time; or
- Start doing something she used to do for comfort, such as sucking her thumb, clinging to a parent, or whining more than before she came to the hospital.
At St. Jude, the child life staff knows that parents are concerned about these behavior changes. As a parent or caregiver, it is important to let your child or teen know you take her feelings, concerns, and fears seriously, no matter what. You can also help her find good ways to express these feelings and concerns. Finally, you can express your own feelings in positive ways. Your child or teen can follow your example.
In the hospital, many decisions are made for children and teens. Patients often feel like they have no control over what happens to them, so they might act out in forceful ways. It is common for children and teens to react with anger and fear. Aggressive responses can include:
- Crying or yelling,
- Resisting medicines, and
- Lashing out at staff or family members. Your child might act rude, yell, or try to hit a staff person or family member.
Some children and teens react to illness and hospital care by withdrawing (backing away from normal activities). For example, you might notice that your child or teen:
- Acts less interested in activities she used to enjoy,
- Sleeps more,
- Talks or eats less, and
- Does not make eye contact with you, other family members, or St. Jude staff.
Regression, aggression, and withdrawal are usually not going to last forever. Most often, they decrease or stop after your child or teen starts feeling more secure and your family creates new routines.
Ways to support your child or teen
Here are some ways you can support your child or teen.
- Tell your child or teen about her illness, and answer questions in honest, simple words.
- Let your child or teen know which family member will be with her during treatment.
- Let your child or teen know that her feelings are normal, and that it is OK to cry, be angry, and be scared.
- Allow your child or teen to help with her own care. This can include:
- Giving her own medicine by mouth in a syringe,
- Handing supplies to the caregiver,
- Choosing an arm for a blood pressure check or a leg for a shot, or
- Flushing her central line after getting permission from the nurse.
- Give your child or teen ways to let feelings out. These can include:
- Hitting a pillow when she is angry, instead of hitting parents,
- Making lists of things she likes and does not like about the hospital,
- Making a video of the hospital to send home, when she misses friends,
- Talking about feelings instead of hiding them or holding them in, and
- Keeping a journal (this can be writing, drawing, or both).
- Keep setting rules and limits for your child or teen. This helps keep up routines. It also helps your child or teen feel secure.
- Praise your child or teen for things she does well, such as:
- Getting through a hard procedure,
- Waiting patiently for an exam or treatment, or
- Taking medicines.
- Let your child or teen play with no interruptions. Playing can help your child feel more normal and help her feel some control over things around her. It can also give your child or teen a sense of achievement. For example, if she wins a game or builds a LEGO toy, this can help her self-esteem and make her feel more independent. Playing can also give your child or teen a chance to express her feelings about the hospital through art, playing “pretend” games, or other activities.
- Let your child or teen control her play. Let her decide what she wants to play with, how she wants to play with it, and for how long.
- Give your child or teen choices when possible. For example, if your child or teen is having blood drawn, tell her that she can look at what is happening or look at something else, like a book, for distraction.
- Include your child or teen in packing her favorite toys, comfort items, or other things that can be used as a distraction while waiting for appointments (coloring books, cards, handheld video games).
If you have questions about how children and teens react to hospital care, please call the Child Life department. If you are inside the hospital, dial 3020. Locally, call 901-595-3020. If you are outside the Memphis area, dial toll-free 1-866-2STJUDE (1-866-278-5833), extension 3020.
This document is not intended to take the place of the care and attention of your personal physician or other professional medical services. Our aim is to promote active participation in your care and treatment by providing information and education. Questions about individual health concerns or specific treatment options should be discussed with your physician.
St. Jude complies with health care-related federal civil rights laws and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, or sex.
ATTENTION: If you speak another language, assistance services, free of charge, are available to you. Call 1-866-278-5833 (TTY: 1-901-595-1040).
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