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Children and Adolescents with Chronic Medical Conditions

What is a chronic medical condition?

All children experience various health problems throughout childhood and most problems come and go.  Many illnesses do not interfere with a child’s daily life or impact their development.  A chronic medical condition is often here to stay.  It lasts over time and can have a significant impact on a child’s daily life.  A chronic illness can require hospitalizations, frequent doctor visits, medication, dietary restrictions, and various medical procedures.  Children and adolescents with a chronic health condition often experience extended periods of sickness and wellness; however, they are always living with their condition.

Examples of chronic medical conditions:

  • Asthma
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy
  • Juvenile rheumatoid arthritis
  • Lupus
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Migraines
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Sickle Cell Anemia
  • Cancer

What impact might a chronic medical condition have on a child?

Children react to the diagnosis of a chronic illness in different ways.  These ways often depend on the type of illness, a child’s chronological age, a child’s developmental stage, and their family.  It is not uncommon for children to feel confusion and experience negative feelings about their situation.  Children with serious illnesses may be at risk for developing emotional problems.  Children may be overwhelmed and experience frustration with frequent doctor and hospital visits and some of their treatments can be painful or scary.  Sometimes, children fall behind in school and this can lead to school avoidance or school refusal.

How can therapy be helpful?

Therapy can be helpful to children and their families.  A chronic medical condition doesn’t just affect the individual, it has a significant impact on the entire family system.  Children and their families need to find different ways to understand the illness, cope with their feelings, manage stressors, and maintain normalcy.  It can be beneficial for children and adolescents to explore their feelings and process their illness with a therapist.  They can learn new skills to deal with their negative feelings and stress.  They can learn and utilize relaxation techniques. They can prepare for doctor visits and medical procedures that may cause anxiety and discomfort and focus on medication compliance.

It is important for children and adolescents to understand that their illness may be a part of their life but that it does not define who they are.  Children benefit greatly from talking about their illness in an honest, accurate, and age appropriate way.