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February 2019

Parents Coping with PTSD after a Child’s Illness or Surgery

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A child’s serious illness can cast a very long shadow across a family, often for years after the crisis has passed.Unknowingly, parents may begin to cry seemingly without any reason and only because any medical setting, with doctors and nurses and medical sights and smells, brought back intense emotions of their child’s illness or major surgery.

Parents can be haunted by a child’s illness or injury. At the time, they are faced with the terrifying truth that a child is in danger or in pain. When the normal stress responses of the parents play out in extreme cases — and when they continue well beyond the child’s illness — additional harm can come to the family. The emotional trauma of the experience, the parental equivalent of coming through the wars, can echo for years.

The experience of having a child diagnosed with an illness or injury that is potentially life-threatening or debilitating is highly distressing for parents. Parents of a child with a serious childhood illness or injury (SCII) must contend with the possibilities of their child’s death or lasting impairment, in the context of negotiating a path through complex diagnostic and treatment processes is an experience that can overwhelm even the most resilient parents.

Despite initial or recurrent periods of extreme distress, most parents of a child with a SCII are able to cope and adjust well over time but should still seek out counseling. However, some experience persistently elevated or escalating distress impacting on their functioning within the family unit, with adverse effects on themselves, their sick child and other family members.

Little is known about the factors that determine which parents show spontaneous recovery in their psychological wellbeing and whether there are differences in recovery trajectories according to the type of illness or age of the child. For the latter, it is imperative that parents seek out counseling for a variety of factors.

For example, parents of hospitalized children have been found to experience trauma symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of ASD. In a study of families of children admitted to a pediatric intensive care unit (PICU), 32% of parents met criteria for ASD while their child was an inpatient.

Higher rates of ASD have been reported with finding of over 63% of mothers and 60% of fathers of children newly diagnosed with cancer met criteria for ASD. Slightly lower rates of 51% of mothers and 40% of fathers were found in another study of parents of children newly diagnosed with cancer.

When dealing with a major surgery, parents will suffer dozens of ups and downs prior to their child’s surgery and afterwards. Typically, PTSD are only one of the biproducts of surviving your child’s medical ordeal.

Before approaching an employer, it is recommended to ease the workload as much as possible. By prioritizing exactly what accommodations you need to be productive on the job and keep life with your ill child on an even keel, you should begin speaking to a professional counselor as early as possible. There are so many questions to be answered.

Do you want to reduce the number of hours your work each week? Is it possible for you to work from home temporarily or longer-term? Do you need a leave of absence? Are you prepared to deal with the news throughout the entire process whether it be a shorter timeframe or longer terms? Flexible time generally will top the list of accommodation wish list but it also depends on the severity of your child. A leave is usually a subsequent request and may be needed at the point you have received the initial diagnosis from your doctor, after hospitalization, or the ongoing treatment’s your child will need.

Consulting an expert therapist is the best possible solution to be prepared in advance or when coping with PTSD after your child’s major illness or surgery. A psychiatric rehabilitation and support program suggest that before requesting leave, parents should consult with a professional early on.

Research has found that at least 1 in 6 parents will suffer from PTSD after a child’s recovery. They may have intrusive and distressing memories and dreams, or continue to avoid people or places that evoke the circumstances of the injury or illness, or struggle with mood problems, including depression. If untreated, this can damage both the parent’s emotional and physical recovery.

Cognitive restructuring techniques will help parents reinterpret and pay attention to the positive and not catastrophize, developing a trauma narrative of their experience, instead. It is imperative that parents who are struggling get referred to mental health professionals where therapists have experience with traumatic stress.

All parents want our children to be safe. Once you’ve been through this, you know that your child will never be 100 percent safe, and it’s can be extremely hard to stop thinking about it.

There are solutions. Seek them out today not only for yourself but for your family, and for your children.