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Difficulty adjusting to illness

Children and adolescents diagnosed with a chronic illness or long duration acute illness can sometimes have difficulty adjusting after diagnosis or at other times in their life. They may have a hard time understanding their illness and what it means or they may have a difficult time with the medicines or treatments needed to treat the illness. An illness can also place new limitations on a child’s behavior which can cause adjustment difficulties as well.

Symptoms of difficulty adjusting to illness

If your child is newly diagnosed with a significant illness that is going to impact their everyday life, we can expect that you may see some mood or behavioral changes.

Common feelings:

  • Fear/worry
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Confusion

Common behaviors include:

  • Tearfulness
  • Increased difficulty separating from caregivers (clingy)
  • Sleep changes/difficulties
  • Regression in behavior (no longer do things they had previously done)
  • Avoiding talking about their diagnosis or not wanting others to know about their health condition
  • Difficulty completing treatments or taking medications to treat their illness

Some changes in mood and behavior are expected and are a normal reaction to a stressful situation. It is only when these behavioral changes or mood changes last for more than a couple of weeks or when they are interfering with life (for example the child won’t go to school or play with friends) that they may need treatment.

Some children will initially appear that they are adjusting to their new illness without any difficulties and it is only after a couple of months that symptoms begin to appear. When newly diagnosed with a chronic (lifelong) illness children do not always understand immediately how it will impact their life so they cope well and it is only after a couple of months of living with that illness that they begin to experience mood and behavioral changes.

How is difficulty adjusting to illness evaluated?

If you are concerned that your child is having a difficult time adjusting to a new diagnosis or a chronic health condition, the first step is often to talk with your child’s medical provider who is treating the health condition. Share your concerns about your child’s mood or behavior with that provider. Your doctor might also refer you to a mental health provider for further evaluation and treatment.

Treatment of difficulty adjusting to illness:

Pediatric Psychologists are specially trained mental health providers who have expertise in treating adjustment difficulties in children with acute or chronic illnesses. Once your child is referred for therapy, the mental health provider will meet with you and your child for an initial assessment to gather information about the changes in mood and behavior and then they will work with you to set goals and develop a treatment plan. Depending on the severity of issues your child might be seen weekly, every other week or even monthly for therapy sessions to work on improving their mood, manage/change difficult behaviors and improve adjustment to illness.

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