Chronic Illness and Play Therapy

Children who suffer from chronic illness face a host of issues than many children do not have to think about. Frequent hospitalisations, limited freedom, lack of control, privacy, uncertainty about their future, and often having to endure frightening and painful procedures can be severely stressful for children due to their limited understanding and cognitive development. This stress can lead to feelings of depression and anxiety, leading to withdrawal, regression, decreased cooperation, aggression, disruptive behaviour and sleep disturbances (Cooper & Blitz, 1985, in Landreth, 2001). Hospitalisation requires children to relinquish their freedom, sense of control, and privacy, while demanding that they undergo frightening and occasionally painful experiences.

How you can help

  • Supporting a child with a chronic illness can be so hard for parents who are stressed themselves and in great pain on their child’s behalf. There are some simple things you can do however, that can be profoundly helpful.
  • Try to avoid always helping your child stay positive and hopeful. Provide a space for them to be sad, anxious, or angry.
  • Try to avoid ‘fixing’ or problem solving their feelings; children can feel like you do not understand if you jump straight to solutions. Instead, try agreeing with them in effect. For example: Child: They are telling you they don’t want to have the next medical procedure. Parent: You are so scared of having that done.
  • Get support for yourself. Watching a child experience all that comes with a chronic illness can be emotionally overwhelming and painful. Ask the hospital if there are counselling services you can access, or seek a private therapist.

How Play Therapy can help

  • Play is a child’s natural way of communicating. Through play, children are given the opportunity to “play out” feelings and problems so that they become more manageable.
  • Children with chronic illness often experience a loss of control in many aspects of their lives. Play therapy can help them process these feelings.
  • Play can allow children to practice ways of ‘being’ that are opposite to feeling disempowered, like feeling powerful, strong and in control. When they have the chance to practice new ways of feeling and acting, they can then start to experiment acting this way in the real world.
Christine Harkin
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