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How to Support Your Young Child During Illness

Two children hold hands while walking down hallway at hospital

A serious illness is stressful for young children and their families, but there are ways to support your child’s emotional, behavioral, and social health.

A new diagnosis or medical setting can be stressful. A serious illness disrupts many aspects of a young child’s life. But your child and family will adjust over time. Here are some ways to support your child’s emotional, behavioral, and social development.

Have a consistent routine

Set a consistent daily schedule so your child knows what to expect. This can help life feel more normal and less stressful.

  • Have regular morning, mealtime, and bedtime routines.
  • Work with your medical team to have a regular appointment schedule when possible.
  • Use a timer to prepare your child for what comes next in the day.
  • Find small ways to stick to a routine such as snack time, watching a favorite show, a short walk after lunch, playing a game, or reading a book.

Promote healthy sleep

Create a consistent sleep environment, nap and sleep schedule, and bedtime routine.

  • Keep a regular sleep routine and setting both in and out of the hospital.
  • Make sure the sleep setting is comfortable, quiet, and dark.
  • Ask your medical team for ways to have consistent naptimes when possible.
  • Bring your child’s security object or favorite toy to the hospital and clinic appointments. This can provide comfort and help your child relax.

Follow instructions for medicines and other treatments

It can be hard to manage schedules, medicines, and other medical tasks. Tools and strategies can help you and other caregivers keep up with your child’s medical care.

  • Make sure you understand the medical team’s instructions. Feel free to ask questions or get information in writing.
  • Let your medical team know if you have problems following the medical plan and problem solve together.
  • Use a pill box to help manage your child’s medicines.
  • Use written or electronic calendars and reminders. You can set reminders in your phone or use an app. Examples of apps to manage medicines include MyMed Schedule, MyTherapy, MedCoach: Medication Tracker, mango CARE, Medisafe Medication Management, and Pill Reminder.

Manage pain and promote comfort

Simple strategies can often help your child manage pain, be less anxious, and stay comfortable during procedures. Talk with your child’s team about options for pain relief.

  • Let your medical team know if your child has pain; you know your child best.
  • Talk to your child in a soft, soothing voice.
  • Hold your child during painful procedures when possible.
  • Needle pokes can be stressful. A local numbing cream or Buzzy® pain relief device may help.
  • Offer your baby or young toddler a pacifier if they have one.
  • Distract your child and redirect their attention.
  • Model slow, deep breathing and have your child copy you.
    • Starfish breathing: Spread your fingers apart, and slowly trace each finger up as you inhale and down as you exhale.
    • Pinwheel breathing: Use a pinwheel to show how big belly breaths make the pinwheel turn.

Support your child’s growth and development

Your child needs the same types of support as all young children. They need to feel nurtured and secure. The parenting practices you use now set the stage for your child’s behavior and emotional functioning later in life. Being consistent with limits keeps your young child safe and promotes a sense of security. Throughout early childhood, it is important to match your expectations to your child’s needs.

Social development

  • Play games that encourage social interaction.
  • Limit how much time your child spends alone with electronic games and screens.
  • Use video calls to allow social interactions between your child and family and friends back home. Tell your child step-by-step what is happening, and help your child interact.
  • Talk to your medical team about opportunities for safe in-person or virtual playdates and activities with other children.
  • Find ways to build early social skills such as eye contact, language, caring, and cooperation.

Emotional development

  • Hold your child. Physical closeness helps your child feel secure. It also helps your child build the skills needed to manage emotions and behavior later in life.
  • Talk about your own feelings, name them, and show appropriate ways to express them.
  • Name and support the truth of your child’s feelings. Help your child identify appropriate ways to express strong feelings.
  • Show your child how to pause and take deep breaths to manage anger, anxiety, and other feelings. For toddlers and preschoolers, practice taking slow, big belly breaths together.
  • Take care of yourself and ask for help if needed. It’s OK to take breaks. This helps both you and your child.

Behavioral development

  • Encourage your child to explore their surroundings in safe, age-appropriate ways.
  • Use distraction and redirection with your child to help manage strong emotions.
  • Tell your young child what to do instead of what not to do. Use as few words as possible and avoid using questions.
  • Praise appropriate behaviors and be clear about what you are praising.
  • Offer choices, when possible. This gives your child a sense of control.
  • Help your child understand what happens after a specific action. Use “if-then” or “when-then” statements with older toddlers and preschool-aged children. For example, “If you throw the toy at other people, then you cannot play with it.”
  • If your child is upset, stay calm and acknowledge your child’s feelings. But do not allow your child to use meltdowns or outbursts to gain control, stall, or get out of following rules or routines.
  • Set clear limits. Follow through with limits and be consistent with consequences. Do not state consequences you will not use. Avoid harsh punishment and physical discipline.
  • Speak about and show the behaviors that you want to encourage. This will help your child learn how to behave.

Find more information on How Cancer May Affect Early Childhood Development.

Talk to your care team if you have questions about your child’s adjustment to illness or their social, emotional, or behavioral development. Care team members are available to support you, your child, and your family. Psychosocial services include psychologists, chaplains, child life specialists, music therapists, school teachers, and social workers.

Key points about supporting your young child during illness

  • A child’s diagnosis of a serious illness can be stressful.
  • You can support your young child in many ways. These include keeping routines, encouraging consistent sleep patterns, and managing pain.
  • You can nurture your child’s development through social interaction, physical closeness, and setting limits.
  • Talk to your care team about ways to support your young child during illness. 

Other resources

The Together by St. Jude™ online resource does not endorse any branded product mentioned in this article.

Reviewed: January 2024