Parent response to childhood sickness
April 24, 2021 2:12 PM   Subscribe

Is there a term for this? Suppose an adult reacts to child in various ways when child is well, both positive and negative. Encouraging, yelling, scolding, patience, teaching, etc. Mixed back. But when child is sick the adult becomes completely positive. This is the only time the child feels completely safe. Looking for terminology, research or anecdata on how this affects the child in adulthood and whether it creates problems for them.
posted by bunderful to Human Relations (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
anecdotally, I have seen a version of this destroy an adult's life.

To replicate the childhood pattern, they sought out a domineering doctor for a romantic partner, who was only ever really loving and attentive to them when they were sick. To nobody's surprise, they were constantly and increasingly "sick" (with increasingly real syndromes) and eventually succumbed to a variety of addictions and an early, substance-abuse related death.

But I should point out that it wasn't 100% a match for what you're describing because the parents had been pretty much always cold and withholding other than during sickness. It wasn't the typical "mixed bag" -- and it's perfectly normal and harmless for parents to be extra attentive and tender with a child when the child is sick. From what I've seen, the harm is when the attention and tenderness are associated ONLY with childhood sickness.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:39 PM on April 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

This sounds a little like the concept of Munchausen syndrome.
posted by basalganglia at 3:08 PM on April 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

Ditto. Manchausen, which can also be described as "medical self-abuse".
posted by kschang at 3:37 PM on April 24, 2021

Actually this is not Munchausen nor Munchausen by Proxy. Munchausen Syndrome is when someone fabricates or secretly induces illness in themselves, and Munchausen by Proxy is when they fabricate or secretly induce illness in another (usually the child.) The patient goes through unnecessary treatments and extreme medical suffering because the inducer/fabricator has a need for that kind of attention.

However, a parent's being solicitous or even over-solicitous of a child when the child is actually, legitimately sick is not the same thing. Having a parent be only kind when a child is sick might create a feeling that illness is a desired state, which theoretically could lead in some rare cases to Munchausen, but it is not Munchausen.
posted by nantucket at 3:49 PM on April 24, 2021 [19 favorites]

I am not sure there is a term. I feel like when people are sick those around them do not stress the patient with mundane things like "You should brush your teeth longer" and "You didn't study and that's why you didn't do well on your exam!" etc. Regular daily worries and stressors are put aside.

Honestly this seems normal -- a child feels especially cared for when sick, but subject to normal parenting in regular times.
posted by ReluctantViking at 3:52 PM on April 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

@nantucket -- I thought OP was talking about...
But when child is sick the adult becomes completely positive. This is the only time the child feels completely safe.
So this basically encourages the child to be sick more often, psychosomatic syndromes and all that, perhaps? Would that be Manchausen on the part of the child?

The parent is NOT performing medical abuse (I believe Manchausen-by-proxy term was discontinued / discouraged), but merely weirdly incentivising the child to be sick more often. I don't think there's a name for this specifically.
posted by kschang at 4:40 PM on April 24, 2021

The scholarly term that's often used for the end result is the "sick role", meaning that a person who is ill has a special position in the family that in part entitles them to extra care and consideration because of their illness. In a dysfunctional family system, the idea is that people may seek out the sick role (even unconsciously) as a way to get better treatment in the family dynamics. This got a lot of attention in the 60s and 70s and has not been as prominent more recently, but has a certain lasting resonance.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 5:42 PM on April 24, 2021 [21 favorites]

It's not Munchhausen that the parents are doing but it could be a cause for that to occur in the child when they grow up. Our brains are wired to identify & seek out "the good stuff" & if medical treatment is "the good stuff" for you then that's what will be your target. I imagine it would take a good amount of therapy & introspection for the grown child to identify this so they can have a good decision making process for seeking help when they're not well. It's really hard to figure out when to see a doctor even when it's not all tied up in your oldest & deepest feelings that are the hardest to understand.
posted by bleep at 6:05 PM on April 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Want to point out that it is totally normal for a parent to be a ‘mixed bag’ in terms of how they interact with their children. Being 100% positive all the time is not a natural state for human beings and parents aren’t a special class of human beings. A parent who acted with 100% positivity all the time would create its own set of neuroses in a child (toxic positivity).

Yelling isn’t great but that is a specific behavior that can be addressed. The underlying emotion of the yelling, be it frustration, anger, sadness, isn’t necessarily wrong for a parent to feel.
posted by scantee at 8:05 AM on April 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

My mother was very like Stoof's mother. Mysterious illnesses and injuries, they struck particularly whenever she was obliged to do something or go somewhere she didn't want to. Ignoring or playing down anyone else's illnesses or injuries, no matter that they were actually real. It was terribly hurtful but I think she learned it during her own dreadful abusive upbringing. My maternal grandmother was similar in some ways, she took to self harming in her 70s so as to be admitted to hospital.

The knock on effect on the next generation, mine, seems to have been ignoring / playing down their own illnesses, avoiding doctors and medical checks and generally doing the exact opposite of the whole "woe is ME!!" attention grabbing thing. It is also not a good thing.

I don't know what it is called but it does seem fairly widespread and really damaging to relationships.
posted by ElasticParrot at 8:26 AM on April 25, 2021 [2 favorites]

Yeah, if you mean "parent is unpredictably emotionally and/or physically harsh/negative/punitive, but also unpredictably nice, and always nice when child is sick" rather than "parent has a normal range of human responses to different types of behavior", then I don't think there's a special term for that other than parental abuse/a "toxic parent" dynamic. You might read up on complex PTSD/C-PTSD. A lot of adults struggle to realize that what happened to them as children was abuse and caused trauma if it doesn't fit the most sensational and outrageous cliches of child abuse, so there may be some resistance to the idea, but that doesn't mean it's not a possibility.

(I don't personally know of anything addressing the specific case wherein a parent was consistently kind when the child was sick, but I do think that's a fairly common abuse pattern and has parallels in other abuse patterns.)
posted by wintersweet at 9:39 AM on April 25, 2021

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