Book explores how children use imagination to battle chronic illness

For children who suffer from chronic illnesses such as diabetes and asthma, the physical pain they endure may sometimes be equaled even eclipsed by the emotional stress they encounter on a regular basis. A recent book by a Penn State researcher chronicles the everyday trials and tribulations of young diabetes and asthma sufferers and their families and highlights their unique ways of coping.

In the book "In Sickness and in Play: Children Coping with Chronic Illness," author Cindy Dell Clark, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Penn State Delaware County, interviewed children ages 5-8 in their homes, instead of at clinical settings, such as hospitals or doctor's offices. By studying children on their own turf, she found that children use the power of imagination and play to cope with the everyday stresses of chronic illness. Clark calls such therapeutic play "Imaginal coping."

Imaginal coping pervaded the lives of the asthmatic and diabetic children Clark studied. Children used play to feel safe, such as a boy with asthma who imagined that superheroes would save his life, when very ill. Just as in the fictional story of the Velveteen Rabbit, children become attached to toys, blankets, and even bed sheets, which they envision as sources of solace and reassurance. Adults need to be aware of how children cope, if only to avoid disrupting it, she said.

"Play is a way for kids to express their feelings in a tangible form they can manage even at a young age. Play allows members of a family to interact, and to sustain shared ways of understanding illness," said Clark. "Even if play seems without direction or goal, it can bring about community and relief for a family and a child who are coming to grips with illness." The book also has many other examples.

"My breathing machine takes ten thousand years. That's how slow it seems to me," said one young asthma sufferer. "Sometimes, I play games when I do my breathing ma

Contact: Vicki Fong
Penn State

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