Coping with Stress Reactions after Injury or Illness

Parents and their children

Coping with stress reactions is common after a serious illness, injury, or a hospital stay. Even though it is your child who is ill or injured, your whole family can be affected. It’s normal for you, as a parent, to feel overwhelmed trying to help your family or yourself cope. You might notice that you and your family members feel stressed about different parts of the illness or injury:

  • Children may feel scared about being alone in a hospital with strange sounds, smells, and people, and about being separated from their friends and family.
  • Parents may feel helpless seeing their child in pain or uncomfortable, or may be scared that their child might die.

Many parents have trouble coping with stress reactions, also called traumatic stress symptoms, when their child is very ill or injured or in the hospital.

Hospitals can be distressing or traumatic for children, teens and parents in many ways:

  • Not knowing what will happen next
  • Seeing medical equipment that looks or sounds scary
  • Being in pain or going through painful procedures
  • Fear of dying
  • Being left alone
  • Side-effects or complications of treatment
  • Concerns about relapse, a noticeable injury or being permanently injured
  • Being separated from siblings, friends, and pets
  • Changes in appearance- hair loss, weight loss/gain, scars, use of wheelchair, etc.
  • Seeing other hurt or sick children or knowing others in the hospital who have died
  • Fear about what others will think of them being sick or in the hospital

Signs and symptoms of traumatic stress include reliving what happened (re-experiencing), staying away from reminders (avoidance), feeling anxious or jumpy (hyper-arousal), being easily upset or angry, being irritable or uncooperative, and/or feeling empty or numb. Children, teens, and parents having trouble coping with stress reactions may show these signs and symptoms in different ways based on their age. and/or at different times (at the hospital, after the hospital, months/years later):

  • Young children might wet the bed or suck their thumb. They might have nightmares or temper tantrums.
  • School aged children may feel the injury or illness is their fault. They are likely to use their imagination to fill in what they do not understand.
  • Teens may try to act more grown up or cover up their feelings. They may feel self-conscious or upset about “not fitting in” with their friends.
  • Parents may feel “on guard” or be overprotective. You may have a short fuse, trouble eating or sleeping, and get upset at seeing their child in pain or discomfort. Most parents will feel overwhelmed about caring for their child’s medical needs as well as the needs of other children/spouse/family. You may worry in private that your child might die, but not want to share your worries with anyone.

With information, support, and talking about their experience, most children and families are able to cope with these stress reactions.

Many parents share common worries about recovery and coping with stress reactions, such as:

Coping with Stress Reactions: Resources for Children and Teens (English/Spanish):

Band-Aides and Blackboards is fun interactive website for kids and teens growing up with medical problems.

The Experience Journals are a collection of stories for children and teens living with physical or emotional illness.

KidsHealth offers online information about child health, behavior, and development for kids / niños and teens / adolescentes.

Starbright World® is an online social network for seriously ill teens and their teen-aged siblings.

Coping with Stress Reactions: Resources for Parents (English/Spanish):

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) features a section on Resources for Parents and Caregivers / Información para Padres, Cuidadores y Familias in English and Spanish.

After the Injury helps parents understand their child's reactions to injury and learn what they can do to help their child.

Case for Smiles provides information to help parents understand and cope with their own traumatic stress reactions resulting from their child's illness or injury, as well as strategies and general tips to support the whole family.

Beyond the Cure offers information and resources for survivors of childhood cancer and their families.  Listen to a teleconference presented by Anne Kazak, PhD, ABPP of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia on Parenting a Child with Cancer: Have You Hugged Yourself Today?

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) features a section For Families / Para la Familia offering educational handouts in several languages on issues like childhood chronic illness and posttraumatic stress disorder.

The American Psychological Association (APA) has information and resources related to trauma, posttraumatic stress disorder, child issues, and a search for local psychologists across the US.

KidsHealth offers information about child health, behavior, and development for parents / padres.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has created a booklet Helping Children and Adolescents Cope with Violence and Disasters: What Parents Can Do / Ayudando a Niños y Adolescentes a Superar la Violencia y los Desastres: Que Pueden Hacer los Padres.

Distracting Children During Medical Procedures: Resources for Parents 

These resources, created by researchers at the University of Iowa, are aimed at helping parents and providers minimize pain and distress during a child's procedures through distraction. 

Parents can learn more and learn how to use distraction techniques to help children during medical procedures in these "Distraction in Action" videos

At this site, parents can also sign up (for free) to use the Distraction in Action Tool, a web-based tool that provides parents with specific recommendations on how to use distraction with their child. 

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