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Social & Emotional Effects

Having a heart condition can be a stressful and emotional experience. A child may have symptoms that make him feel routinely unwell. He will also need to be away from home and in an unknown place for a treatment that can often be uncomfortable. Exposure to new situations and new people can be stressful to even the healthiest child. That is why it is important to recognize the stresses your child confronts and to communicate and help prepare your child for the challenges he faces when he is diagnosed with CHD. 

For most children with CHD, the psychological problems that emerge during the school-aged years tend to diminish or disappear entirely once adulthood is reached. Of course, for some children the experience does not normalize, and overtime the unpleasantness may become more routine but no more welcome. The concern, of course, is that these negative emotions will become ingrained and influence how children live their lives, the interactions they have with others, and how successfully they are able to copewith treatment.

Most children with CHD are very well adjusted. Some may face more psychological and emotional challenges, depending on the type of cardiac defect and their treatment experience, among other factors.

Many children are fearful about their health, and face physical activity restrictions that bar them from being able to participate in life as fully as other children. They also may be distressed at having to have painful invasive procedures. This can make them anxious, withdrawn, and stressed. Anger and depression may also be seen in these children. In some instances, they may develop phobias. Some research also indicates that children with CHD may be more likely to have behavioural problems, like obsessive-compulsive disorders.

Children with CHD may also be fearful about the future. For children who need staged surgeries, or who unexpectedly require surgery years after initial treatment, there may be a sense of sadness or disappointment that it is not all behind them. It is also the case that children who do not go through an aggressive treatment protocol may be anxious over their health and fearful of declining health.  

Be understanding and empathetic

The best thing you can do is to communicate with your child to understand her experience and perspective. Find out what she is thinking, doing, and feeling. That way you are in the best position to offer support and correct any inaccurate or unreasonable beliefs your child may have about her health. It is also important to keep in mind that 1 in 5 people has a mental health problem, and this includes people of all ages, from pre-schooler to adult. So if your child is struggling with an emotional burden, it may have nothing to do with her CHD. Regardless, consider seeking out professional help for your child, ideally through a mental health professional specializing in children or adolescents. It is also helpful to provide your child opportunities to exercise control over their lives and make their own decisions.

Ross Hetherington, PhD, C.Psych

12/14/2009




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