There are many different factors that contribute to childhood chronic illness; ranging from environmental and nutritional factors, through to emotional and psychological factors. In my experience, if a child becomes ill and remains ill, it is rarely, if ever, just about the child.
Obviously, the mother and father are responsible for their children’s physical health, because they are the ones who make key decisions like: Do we eat organic, or pesticide/antibiotic/hormone-laden food? Do we cook with stainless steel, or ceramic, or toxic T-Fal pots and pans? Do we cook our food in a microwave that denatures the proteins and causes harmful changes in our blood chemistry, or do we cook in the oven and stovetop?
Do we dress our children in synthetic fabrics, which cause them to absorb xenoestrogens through their skin, or do we dress them only with natural fabrics next to their skin? Do we clean our house and our clothes with natural substances, or do we use chemical cleansers with neurotoxin fragrances? And so on.
More complex, however, are the ways in which parents are responsible for the emotional and psychological factors which can result in chronic illness. As John Harrison, MD writes in his book Love Your Disease; It’s Keeping You Healthy, “The interaction between members of a family will often initiate and maintain both health and disease.”
As a parent, our instant, knee-jerk reaction may be anger and indignation that somehow we are to “blame” for our child being ill, “How dare you even suggest that, when I am doing everything in my power to help my child!” And yes, our feelings are valid. We are doing everything we know of to help our child. But what if there are things we don’t know about? What if our ignorance is causing us to inadvertently reinforce our child’s illness? Are we to blame for that? No. But, ultimately, are we responsible for that? Yes. And taking responsibility is a wonderful thing – because it means that not only can we get to the root of what’s really going on, but we can fix it too!
Illness can be used as a way to obtain protection; from verbal, or physical attacks, from an older sibling, or from stressful parental expectations to perform in various areas (scholastically, sports, religion, socially). When the pressure from parental expectations becomes too great to bear, illness is the one great pressure-reliever that’s accepted with no arguments and minimal negative consequences. Illness will not only allow a child to say “No”, without suffering anger, recriminations, or pressure, but usually with the added bonus of receiving sympathy, concern and caring.
Let’s look at a basic example of how this can work: Johnny doesn’t want to be on the soccer team anymore, he’s not enjoying it, it’s not fun anymore and he finds it too competitive and stressful. But Johnny’s Dad is the team coach and Johnny knows how terribly hurt, disappointed and angry Dad would be if he told him he wanted to quit. Johnny knows his Dad will have a fit if he even suggests quitting. Johnny has tried to talk to his Mum about this, but his Mum also doesn’t want to go through the fallout from Dad, so she tries to placate Johnny with things like, “But Johnny, you love soccer. And you’re the top scorer on the team. You’d be miserable without soccer. And what are you going to do instead? Just sit around and watch TV? It’s only twice a week.” and so on.