Every parent imagines that their child will have a healthy life. When a child receives an unexpected medical diagnosis, parents begin the process of adjustment, which is often filled with emotions and an uncertainty about what to do next.
CHOC Children’s pediatric psychologist Dr. Sabrina A. Karczewski offers the following tips for parents to cope with unexpected news about their child’s health. The adjustment may take some time, but in most cases the stress does goes down, she says. “Most parents are able to find that equilibrium in their families again.”
- Absorb information at your own pace.
When you receive unexpected news about your child, it can be hard to pay attention to what the doctor is sharing with you. It’s very common to be confused and to forget details.
Keep a list of ongoing questions. It’s okay to ask the same questions over again and to ask for clarification. When you meet with the doctor, have a family member or friend come with you and help write down the information you receive.
“The most important thing is to make sure you understand to the level that you need to,” Dr. Karczewski says. “It’s okay to not fully understand everything immediately.”
- Have permission to feel your feelings.
Learning about your child’s medical condition can bring about feelings similar to the grieving process, such as shock, denial, anger and depression. These are all normal feelings and it’s okay to feel them.
A common reaction is to feel mad at your support people (medical team, family members, etc.). You can rest assured that relationships can be mended to move forward with your child’s medical care, Dr. Karczewski says. Some parents also might feel guilt, whether it’s due to concerns about their own genetics, not having an instinct that something was wrong sooner or attributing early symptoms to something more normal. “I would tell parents, it’s not your fault,” Dr. Karczewski says. “In fact, your child only got diagnosed because you did the right thing by bringing them to a medical doctor.”
Once you’re able to acknowledge your feelings, lean on positive coping skills to work through them. Think about a time that you have coped with another stressful situation and use those same skills that have worked for you, Dr. Karczewski says.
- Set limits on your online research.
Most parents will turn to the Internet at some point during their child’s medical treatment. That’s understandable, but Dr. Karczewski recommends that you set some boundaries.
“The internet is a really wonderful place and it is also a terrifying place,” she says. “Use your medical team as a guide to direct you to reliable and trustworthy resources. I also recommend setting a healthy time limit for your online research so you can have time for other things and also not be consumed. The information will be there tomorrow, it’s okay to put it down for today.”
- Prioritize your relationships early.
“What ends up happening for a lot of parents is they spend their energy on their child with a medical condition, and they neglect their relationship as a couple or with their other children,” Dr. Karczewski says. “Be sure to make time for activities outside of the medical experience, and nurture your other relationships, too.”
- Focus on self-care as best as you can.
While it might feel wrong to focus on yourself instead of your child, you’ll be better able to help them if you take care of your own needs, even in small ways. Take a quick shower, go for a walk or schedule time to do an activity that you enjoy.
- Lean on family and friends.
Dr. Karczewski recommends making a schedule for family and friends to be with you. “Family can be great, but I know they can add stress, and you may not have the space to manage that stress,” she says. “Come up with specific tasks for family members (like making meals or picking up your other kids from school); it helps them give you what you need and not feel like they are getting in the way.”
- Seek extra help for yourself if you need it.
Pay special attention to any feelings that are interfering with your daily functioning and seek mental health services early if needed. Dr. Karczewski explains, “Nobody is born knowing how to handle this. Some of us need additional ideas on how to move forward, and that’s okay.”
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