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Families with Seriously Ill Children : The Psychologist’s Perspective

Claire Van Pevenage, Isabelle Lambotte

When children become seriously ill, the profound and painful effects are not limited to the sick children; they also extend to the families. These families find themselves thrust into acute emotional crises triggered by the threat of losing a child and by the child’s, and the rest of the family’s questioning of their sense of immortality. This situation results in various experiences and feelings (a search for meaning, sense of failure, anxiety, aggression, feelings of powerlessness and guilt, etc.) that inevitably have an impact on the children, their families, and their relationships with caregivers.

Our experience of over 15 years in acute-care pediatrics has shown us that while a child’s capacity to face serious illness varies according to personal factors (personality, age, temperament), it also depends on parental and familial factors such as adaptability, communication, cohesion, and development.

Based on transcriptions of several families’ stories, we examine a number of parental and familial reactions to seriously ill children, focusing in particular on certain complex situations (malformed infant, child of separated parents, parental needs of children in palliative care) and on approaches to providing support. We conclude by briefly broaching the subject of grief and follow-up care.