Psychological effects of heart conditions on children

Written by DanielleBosely MS, NCSP | Fact checked by Psychology Dictionary staff 

While heart attacks and strokes are possible in children, they mostly occur in adults. Instead, the majority of heart conditions that affect children are congenital heart defects, peripheral artery disease and arrhythmias. Explaining these conditions to a child is no small task. They will have questions that can’t be answered easily. Sometimes, it may be beneficial to have a professional on hand to address their concerns alongside parents and loved ones. Furthermore, children are not exempt from the same emotions that adults often feel upon being presented with such diagnoses. The fear, trepidation and uncertainly they feel is a normal side effect of what they’ve just been told, and it needs to be treated with care.

When Your Baby Has the Blues

Yes, children get depressed, too. While it’s less common — often because children do not yet have hormones raging through their bodies the way older teens and adults do  — kids are often presented with situations in their lives that lead them down a path of chronic sadness. They can’t shake it. They don’t know how to describe it, and sometimes they won’t even know anything is wrong. Sadly, children are unable to really verbalize how they feel at times in ways that adults can fully understand. Instead, they internalize these emotions and act out in other ways. For instance, by throwing tantrums, cutting or engaging in other self-injurious behaviors, and lying or stealing. Acting out for attention — even when it’s negative attention — is not uncommon in the depressed child.

It is up to parents to pay attention to key signs that something is off in their little one. It can be extremely difficult for a child to digest that they can’t play the way other kids do, or that they might need surgery to repair their heart. To a small child, that organ is a heart-shaped red object in their chest where their love comes from, not a mass of tissue and arteries that pumps blood to the rest of their body and keeps them alive.

Some children may need ongoing therapy to get through the initial weeks and months following diagnosis. Others may need it even longer. Talk therapy can be a great resource for these children who are likely too young to engage in most formal support group settings. Of course, parents are also crucial resource for these kids. In the event that your child is willing to open up to you about what they’re feeling, it may be beneficial for the parents to also have a strong relationship with a therapist whom they can discuss the details of their conversations with.

It is a dark time for children who must live their life differently from the way other children do. Therapy is an excellent method for teaching children the coping mechanisms that they need. Some children may not become depressed, but rather they might pick up on fears and anxieties from their parents. This can stem from the financial burden of treating heart conditions to the fear that a child may not survive it. Again, therapy is the strongest solution to make sure anxiety disorders in children are not overlooked, and that these kids are able to function and adapt to their situation.

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