Subscribe to Blog via Email
For many parents, just the thought of needing to take their child to the hospital can induce anxiety. While parents do not like to imagine this situation, the truth is that many children will at some point require a trip to the hospital. In 2010 alone, there were over 25 million emergency department visits by children under 18 years old in the U.S. (Wier, Hao, Owens, & Washington, 2013). Given the likelihood of a hospital visit for their child, it is important for parents to be aware that current research shows strong correlations between parental anxiety, especially maternal anxiety, and children’s adverse reactions in the hospital setting. The research shows that not only can parental anxiety negatively affect children’s health while they are hospitalized, but it can also affect children’s behavior in the months and even years following hospitalization. It is important for parents to be aware of how their own anxiety can affect their child so that they can act appropriately and request proper services at the hospital in order to not pass on their anxiety to their children.
High parental anxiety correlates with children’s emotional distress in the hospital, especially during invasive procedures. Research by Dahlquist, Power, Cox, & Fernbach (1994) found that, compared to parents with lower anxiety, highly anxious parents of young children were less reassuring to their children prior to a medical procedure and were more agitated and less responsive to their children during the procedure. This likely communicated anxiety to the child and caused distress. They found that parental anxiety caused observed distress in older children as well. Wells & Schwebel (1987) found that, compared with high-stress mothers, moderately stressed mothers were more cooperative during an initial child medical exam, and their children recovered more rapidly.
Parental anxiety has also been shown to influence children’s post-hospital behavior and recovery. Melnyk and Feinstein (2001) found that mothers who were more anxious during their child’s hospitalization reported that their child had more negative post-hospital behavior changes. Small and Melnyk (2006) built on this research and found that maternal anxiety was the single most significant predictor of children’s negative behavioral changes, like aggression and hyperactivity, three and six months following hospitalization. In a study of children undergoing routine tonsillectomies, Skipper and Leonard (1968) found that mothers who experienced high stress while their children were hospitalized reported that following hospitalization, their children had disturbed sleep, excessive crying, greater difficulty eating, drinking, and relating to others, and regression in behavior, like bedwetting and thumb sucking.
More research still needs to be done on the complex relationship between parental anxiety and child anxiety in the hospital setting. Additionally, the effects of paternal anxiety and sibling anxiety on a hospitalized child need to be further explored. While there are gaps in the research, parents should take away from the current body of knowledge that it is important to remain calm around their child, model appropriate coping behavior, and practice self-care in order to manage anxiety and stress. There is trained hospital staff, like child life specialists, who can help parents understand procedures and learn coping skills. The studies by Melnyk and Feinstein (2001) and Dahlquist et al. (1994) suggest that teaching parents how to coach their children through medical procedures and about what behavior changes to expect in their children, respectively, results in reduced parental anxiety. If a parent is feeling anxious about their child’s upcoming hospital visit or during their child’s hospitalization, they should not hesitate to practice self care and/or reach out to hospital staff for help- it could make all the difference for their child.
For more information regarding parental anxiety and hospitalization, see the following links:
Dahlquist, L., Power, T., Cox, C., & Fernbach, D. (1994). Parenting and Child Distress During Cancer Procedures: A Multidimensional Assessment. Children’s Health Care, 23(3), 149-166.
Melnyk, B., & Feinstein, N. (2001). Mediating functions of maternal anxiety and participation in care on young children’s posthospital adjustment. Research in Nursing & Health, 24(1), 18-26.
Skipper, J., & Leonard, R. (1968). Children, Stress, and Hospitalization: A Field Experiment. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 9(4), 275-287.
Small, L., & Melnyk, B. (2006). Early predictors of post-hospital adjustment problems in critically ill young children. Research in Nursing & Health, 29(6), 622-635. doi: 10.1002/nur.20169
Wells, R., & Schwebel, A. (1987). Chronically ill children and their mothers: Predictors of resilience and vulnerability to hospitalization and surgical stress. Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 8(2), 83-89.
Wier, L., Hao, Y., Owens, P., & Washington, R. (2013, June 1). Overview of Children in the Emergency Department, 2010. Retrieved from http://www.hcup-us.ahrq.gov/reports/statbriefs/sb157.pdf