Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

Parenting a Chronically Ill Child

"Dr. Laura....Your email came right smack on a long day's journey into the evening to bedtime. My daughter, 4 was diagnosed with asthma since 3. Parenting a child who is frequently sick or missing out on school fun or frequently saying her dolls are sick is so tiring, if not painful.  She was tired.. demanded things...She was just sick last week and she seemed to be getting sick again... I have done what I can to visit her doctors regularly and wonder what more to do...Maybe all I ask for is the courage to go on and on and maybe the day will come when taking charge of a young child with asthma is less guesswork and more two way communication. Thanks for reminding us that parenting is hard work." -- Linda

Parenting is hard work even with a well child.  With a child who has a chronic illness, it is so much harder. As Linda says, it takes a lot of courage. 

It doesn't help that with a young child so much is "guesswork" rather than two-way communication.  That always increases our anxiety. But over time, our children can indeed learn to notice what is going on physically and emotionally, to manage their own illness and their feelings about it. 

At four, of course, she depends on us to do that.  That means we have to be able to tolerate her pain, frustration and disappointment.  Every parent in the world would find that challenging.

I think the first step is always to tend to our own feelings about our child's illness.  To cry, to grieve the loss of the healthy child we were hoping for, to forgive our self, and our child, and maybe the universe.

If we can regularly check in with and process our own feelings, being with our child's feelings becomes more tolerable.  We all need someone to talk to, who doesn't try to "fix" things, but will just let us vent. When we have a chronically ill child, this becomes critical.

Illness requires so much medical supervision from parents. What often goes un-remarked is all the emotional help that parents and children need to cope well with illness. I think that's the "more" that remains to be done:  helping our child to express her disappointment about missing the fun, being frightened when she can't breathe, being angry at us that we can't fix it. 


1. Play.
When her doll is "sick", she's attempting to work through her feelings using her dolls.  Playing "sick" doll with her is a perfect, healthy way to help her process those emotions.  You might find it helps you, too, when you can humorously act out an extremely demanding sick child.

2. Let her be angry.  Don't take it personally.  Once she gets past her anger, all her fear and sadness can come up.  If you need support, check out "Helping your Child with Anger"on my website.

3. Let her cry in your arms. There's nothing as healing as a good cry.  If you just sit with her and listen to her feelings (both verbal and nonverbal) and acknowledge them, she'll probably begin crying.  "Sweetie, I know you're disappointed you had to miss that fun time...You are so sad....It is no fun to have asthma...It doesn't seem fair....You are feeling so bad...It's ok to cry...Everybody needs to cry sometimes...Come let me hold you....You can cry as much as you want..."  All young children need to cry sometimes; chronically ill children have many more feelings to process because they get so frightened.  They usually need our help to feel safe enough to let these feelings come up and swamp them.

But we can't really be there for our child until we first support ourselves to work through our own feelings. I wish you courage, and comfort, and strength. 

And some joyful downhill coasting to balance those tough uphill stretches on your parenting journey.

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