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Children with disability: mental health

The idea of children with disabilities can be a sensitive topic for parents. It is not easy to open up about your child’s mental health, but it is essential to ensure they get the support they need. Mental illness in children and teens can look different from adults and may include anxiety, depression or ADHD. 

This blog post will explore ways to help your child manage a mental illness.

Anxiety, disability and chronic conditions: what to expect

Many children experience anxiety now and then. As children grow, develop and explore their worlds, they come across challenging situations. Anxiety is a normal reaction to these situations.

For most children, anxiety doesn’t last and goes away on its own. But for some children, stress is so intense that it stops them from doing everyday things.

Children with disabilities or chronic health conditions can experience anxiety because they may worry about:

  • Having medical procedures like blood tests
  • Missing out on events, friendships or school
  • Coping with their condition or treatments
  • Getting sicker or having a relapse

Signs and symptoms of anxiety in children with disability or chronic conditions

Children with disabilities or chronic conditions generally show the same signs and symptoms of childhood anxiety as other children.

But when children have a disability or chronic conditions, it might sometimes be hard to distinguish the physical signs of anxiety, like a racing heart or stomach aches, from the physical symptoms of their needs.

So if your child has a disability or chronic condition, you can also look out for other signs of anxiety. These might include:

  • Worrying about procedures or going to the hospital
  • Refusing to go to school or not wanting to leave you
  • Refusing treatments
  • Saying ‘no’ a lot, or behaving aggressively
  • Avoiding talking about the condition.
A person holding the hand of a small child that's being held carried by an adult.

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Helping children with disabilities or chronic conditions deal with anxiety

You can do many practical things to support your child with a disability or a chronic health condition.

Many of these are the same things you would do for any child with anxiety. They include acknowledging your child’s fear, gently encouraging your child to do something they feel anxious about, and providing praise when facing fears.

You can do some extra things to help your child with a disability or a chronic condition.

Physical health

  • Give your child developmentally appropriate information about the condition or disability. Provide more information as they get older. Without accurate data, children often imagine the worst.
  • Give your child choices. There are some things your child will have to do, but you can be flexible with other things, like foods within a diet or physiotherapy times. If your child has choices about things like this, it gives a sense of control.
  • Plan for procedures. Does your child do better with several days to prepare, or do they worry if they have too much notice? Help your child plan and think about what strategies can be used to help them cope with procedures.
  • Try to make treatments fun. For example, you could play music or find ways to turn them into games.

Relationships and feelings

  • Look into peer support networks for children with disabilities or chronic conditions. If these networks run camps or playgroups, this can give your child the chance to socialise with other children with similar experiences.
  • Develop a plan that helps your child keep up with schoolwork and friends when away for treatments.
  • Support your child’s friendships – for example, you could encourage they to invite friends to your home.
  • Help your child learn coping skills. You can do this by helping your child work out what soothes them when there are feelings of anxiety – for example; they might like to be hugged, sit quietly for a few minutes or cuddle a favourite toy.

Everyday life

  • Be consistent in the way you use family rules and consequences with all your children.
  • Have fun together as a family. Spend time together that’s not focused on your child’s disability or condition. For example, you could try scheduling family time as well as one-on-one time with your child.

Getting help for anxiety

You can get professional help and advice from several sources:

 

Looking after yourself

Caring for a child with a disability or chronic condition can be stressful. It can affect the whole family. If you look after yourself, you’ll be better able to look after your child.

You might find it helps to:

  • Contact a support program for parents of children with disabilities, or chronic conditions
  • Talk to your GP
  • Make use of respite care to have a break.

 

Anxiety, disability and chronic conditions: what to expect

Anxiety is widespread among teenagers, especially when faced with unfamiliar, dangerous or stressful situations. Anxiety is a normal reaction to challenging situations.

For most teenagers, anxiety doesn’t last and goes away on its own. But for some teenagers, it doesn’t go away or is so intense that it stops them from doing everyday things.

Teenagers with a disability or chronic health conditions are more likely than their peers to experience anxiety, especially if the disability or illness is unpredictable or significantly affects their daily lives.

For example, teenagers with a disability or long-term health conditions might feel anxious or worry about:

  • Having medical procedures like blood tests
  • Missing out on school, friendships or romantic relationships
  • Being judged because of their disabilities or conditions
  • Not achieving what they want in life
  • Being burdens on their families
  • Getting sicker or relapsing

Signs and symptoms of anxiety in teenagers with a disability or chronic conditions

Teenagers with disabilities or chronic conditions generally show the same signs and symptoms of anxiety as other teenagers.

But when children have a disability or chronic conditions, it might sometimes be hard to distinguish the physical signs of anxiety, like sleep problems, from the physical symptoms of their needs.

If your child has a disability or chronic condition, you can also look out for other signs of anxiety. These might include:

  • Avoiding social events or sleepovers if this means doing treatments or taking medications 
  • Worrying excessively about appearance
  • Refusing to have procedures or go to the hospital
  • Being concerned about transferring to the adult health care system.

Helping teenagers with a disability or chronic conditions deal with anxiety

There are many practical ways to support your teenage child with a disability or a chronic disease through anxiety.

Many of these are the same things you’d do for any child with anxiety or an anxiety disorder. 

They include acknowledging your child’s fear, gently encouraging your child to do something they feel anxious about, and listening actively when your child wants to talk about feelings.

You can do some extra things to help your child with a disability or a chronic condition.

Physical health

  • Make sure your child has reliable and developmentally appropriate information about her health condition. Unfortunately, teenagers can get a lot of misinformation about their conditions from the internet or friends.
  • Talk regularly with your child about the condition and answer any questions. It’s a good idea to do this a couple of days before or after health appointments.
  • Find ways to give your child choices. This can help your child feel a sense of control. For example, could your child choose certain foods within a diet or where to go for treatments?
  • Try to make home treatments less stressful. For example, you could take the focus off them by building them into usual routines like getting ready for dinner or brushing teeth.
  • Please talk with your child about how they could explain the condition to new people. For example, roleplay might help your child feel more confident to talk about the disability.

Relationships and feelings

  • Acknowledge your child’s fears and assure them that many teenagers feel anxious from time to time.
  • Help your child find a peer network for teenagers with disabilities or chronic conditions. This could be a face-to-face group or online.
  • Encourage your child to use the education support that some children’s hospitals provide. This can be a way for your child to build new friendships.
  • Please help your child develop a plan to keep up with schoolwork and friends when away for treatments.

Everyday life

  • Spend time with your child doing activities they enjoy
  • Try to minimise the focus on your child’s illness or disability
  • Be consistent in the way you use family rules and consequences with all your children

Getting help for anxiety

If you think your child needs help dealing with anxiety, it’s a good idea to get professional support as early as possible. Your GP or the professionals working with your child can refer you to a psychologist.

Looking after yourself

Caring for a child with a disability or chronic condition can be stressful. It can also affect the whole family. If you look after yourself, you’ll be better able to look after your child.

You might find it helps to:

  • Contact a support program for parents of children with disabilities, or chronic conditions
  • Talk to your GP
  • Make use of respite care to have a break.

Depression, disability and chronic conditions: what to expect

It’s normal for children to feel down, be cranky or think negatively – this is just part of growing up. Children have to go through a range of feelings to learn how to deal with them.

But childhood depression is more than just feeling sad, blue or low. Depression in children is a severe condition, which can affect children’s physical and mental health.

Children with disabilities or chronic conditions are more likely to experience low mood and depression than their peers because they might be in pain or feel that their condition gets in the way of daily life.

Signs and symptoms of depression in children with disability and chronic conditions

Symptoms of depression in children with disabilities or chronic conditions are similar to depression symptoms in other children. But the physical symptoms of disability or chronic conditions can mask some signs of depression-like low energy, poor appetite and sleep problems.

If your child with a disability or a chronic condition has depression, they might also:

  • Say they feel different from peers – for example, ‘I’m not good enough
  • Not take medications or refuse to do other treatments like physiotherapy
  • Complain about pain more than usual, including headaches or whole-body pain.

Helping children with disabilities and chronic conditions deal with depression

You can do many practical things to support your child with a disability or a chronic disease through depression.

Many of these are the same things you’d do for any child with depression. They include modelling positive thinking, managing your child’s stress and making time for talking.

You can do some extra things to help your child with a disability or a chronic condition.

Relationships and feelings

  • Could you help your child think beyond their health? What are they good at? Where can they succeed?
  • Look into peer networks for children with disabilities or chronic conditions. If these networks run camps or playgroups, this can give your child the chance to socialise with other children with similar experiences.
  • Develop a plan that helps your child keep up with schoolwork and friends whenaway for treatments.
  • Support your child’s friendships and activities and help find ways to make and maintain new relationships – for example, you could invite new friends over.
  • Please encourage your child to tell trusted friends about their disability or condition. This can strengthen friendships and help them feel more supported.
  • Help your child learn coping skills. You can do this by helping your child work out what soothes them – for example, you might like to be hugged or cuddle a favourite toy.

Physical health

  • Give your child choices. There are some things your child will have to do, but you can be flexible with other things like foods within a diet or physiotherapy times. If your child has choices about things like this, it gives them a sense of control. But note that children with depression can struggle with making decisions, so there’s no need to make your child choose if they’re finding it difficult.
  • Plan for procedures. It will probably be easier for your child to cope with stress if they know a system is coming up and you have a plan for dealing with it.
  • Try to make treatments fun. For example, you could play music or find ways to turn them into games.
  • Give your child developmentally appropriate information about the condition or disability. Provide more information as he gets older. Without accurate data, children often imagine the worst.

Everyday life

  • Have fun as a family. Spend time together that’s not focused on your child’s disability or condition. You could try scheduling family time as well as one-on-one time with your child.
  • Be consistent in the way you use family rules and consequences with all your children.

Professional help for children with depression and disability or chronic conditions

Depression doesn’t go away on its own. So you need to help your child if you’re worried they have depression. Here’s what to do:

Looking after yourself

Caring for a child with depression can be stressful. It can affect the whole family. If you look after yourself, you’ll be better able to look after your child.

You might find it helps to:

  • Contact a support program for parents of children with disabilities or chronic conditions
  • Talk to your GP
  • Make use of respite care to have a break.

Depression: teenagers with disability and chronic conditions

Emotional ups and downs are typical for teenagers. But depression is much more than just feeling down – it’s a severe mental health disorder.

Teenagers with disabilities or chronic conditions are more likely to experience depression than their peers because their condition can get in the way of everyday life and might stop them from doing the things their peers are doing.

Signs and symptoms of depression in teenagers with a disability or chronic conditions

Signs of depression in teenagers with a disability or chronic conditions are similar to depression signs in other teenagers. But it can be harder to spot the signs of depression in teenagers with disabilities. This is because many depression signs overlap with physical symptoms of disability or chronic conditions, like low energy and changes in eating or sleeping habits.

If your child with a disability or a chronic condition has depression, they might also:

  • Say they feel worthless, helpless or hopeless because of the condition. They might say things like ‘Nothing will ever improve, or ‘I can’t do anything
  • Refuse to do treatments like physiotherapy exercises or not take medication. They might say things like, ‘What’s the point?’
  • Say they’re not good enough because of his disability or condition
  • Be withdrawn or not want to do activities that he used to enjoy
  • Get agitated, mainly if he’s non-verbal.

Professional help for teenagers with depression and disability or chronic conditions

If left untreated, teenage depression can have serious long-term consequences. If you’re worried about your child, it’s essential to seek professional help as early as possible.

Most young people won’t seek help themselves, so your child will probably need your help to get professional support. If you’ve tried to talk to your child about your concerns, but they’ve refused service or said there’s nothing wrong, you might need to seek help by yourself to start with.

There are many people and places you can go to for help with teenage depression:

  • Your GP – keep in mind that sometimes children are more comfortable talking to a GP who doesn’t also see their parents, a younger doctor or a doctor of the same gender
  • Other professionals who work with your child
  • School counsellors
  • Psychologists and counsellors
  • Your local community health centre
  • Local mental health services.

Teenagers with depression and disability or chronic conditions: things to try at home

If your child has depression, she might feel upset or frustrated that she has another diagnosis and treatment plan to deal with. So it’s important to talk with your child and reassure your child that depression is manageable.

You can do many practical things to support your teenage child with a disability or a chronic condition through depression. Many of these are the same things you’d do for any child with depression.

You can do some extra things to help your child with a disability or a chronic condition.

Relationships and feelings

  • Please help your child develop a plan for keeping up with schoolwork and friends when away for treatments.
  • Please encourage your child to tell trusted peers and teachers about their disability or condition. This can strengthen your child’s friendships and relationships and help them feel supported. Of course, they can choose who they tell.
  • Could you help your child think beyond their health? What are they good at? Where can they succeed?
  • Help your child find a peer network for teenagers with disabilities or chronic conditions. This could be a face-to-face group or online.
  • Encourage your child to use the education support that some children’s hospitals provide. This can be a way for your child to build new friendships.
  • Support your child’s friendships and activities and help them find ways to make and maintain new relationships. For example, you could encourage them to invite friends to your home.

Physical health and wellbeing

  • Look for ways that your child can be independent. For example, your child might be able to choose foods within a given diet or decide the health professionals they feel most comfortable seeing.
  • Help your child identify useful and accurate online health information.

Everyday life

  • Be consistent in the way you use family rules and consequences with all your children.
  • Teach your child how to keep their health needs organised – for example, by keeping a diary of appointments, filing information and keeping medication well organised.
  • Arrange family and one-on-one time with your child that’s not focused on his disability or condition.

Looking after yourself

Caring for a child with depression can be stressful. It can also affect the whole family. If you look after yourself, you’ll be better able to look after your child.

You might find it helpful to:

  • Contact a support program for parents of children with disabilities or chronic conditions
  • Talk to your GP
  • Make use of respite care to have a break.

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