Objective To discover the psychosocial processes that take place in families when a child is acutely ill at home and the influence of these processes on families’ response to such episodes of illness.
Methods Glaserian grounded theory qualitative study comprising 24 in-depth family interviews with 15 families. QRS NVivo software was used to facilitate constant comparative analysis and the generation of the grounded theory.
Results The findings of this doctoral study show that acute childhood illness at home is often distressing for children and their families. Families strive to “do the right thing” for their child, and in response to perceived informal social rules to “contain acute childhood illness within family life”. Illnesses that they are expected to contain are those defined as minor or normal, seeking help for those that the family define as “real” illnesses for which medical help should be sought. Informal social rules are learnt through “felt or enacted criticism” during parents’ encounters with others, particularly doctors, when their children are ill. Consequently, parents take action to avoid exposure to such negative scrutiny, sometimes resulting in late consultation. Families appear to be responding to the pervading culture of individualism within society, containing their difficulties—in this case their child’s illness—within the immediate family group.
Conclusions Findings indicate a need to develop professionals’ skills in facilitating family care, reducing the incidence of felt or enacted criticism, and the “hidden anxiety” for families when seeking help for a sick child.