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Navigating the unknown: understanding and managing parental anxiety when a child is ill
  1. Elise Simoens1,
  2. Lauren Michiels1,
  3. Jaan Toelen1,2,3,
  4. Peter de Winter2,3,4
  1. 1 Department of Pediatrics, KU Leuven University Hospitals, Leuven, Belgium
  2. 2 Leuven Child and Health Institute, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
  3. 3 Department of Development and Regeneration, KU Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
  4. 4 Department of Pediatrics, Spaarne Gasthuis, Haarlem and Hoofddorp, The Netherlands
  1. Correspondence to Professor Peter de Winter, Department of Pediatrics, Spaarne Gasthuis, 2000 AK Haarlem, The Netherlands; pdewinter{at}


Background Parents are often confronted with a difficult decision when their child falls ill: should they go to the general practitioner (GP) or not? This study aims to describe this process comprehensively in order to allow clinicians to assess the extent to which parents can recognise clinical warning signs and act accordingly. The purpose of this study is to describe parents’ decision-making processes when deciding whether or not to consult a GP for their sick child.

Methods We used a qualitative study design based on semistructured interviews to investigate the decision-making process of 25 parents. Four case scenarios describing a developing illness in a child were presented.

Results Parents’ reasons for seeking medical attention could be divided into two main categories. First, non-specific fears lead parents to consult a doctor. Parents were alarmed by the persistence and progression of symptoms, the combination of symptoms or changes in their child’s behaviour or they needed reassurance. Second, several specific fears were identified. Sometimes, parents fear a specific disease, while at other times, they are concerned about warning signs. Some parents, however, would not seek medical attention at any decision point even though their child could be in a potentially life-threatening situation.

Conclusions Although parents make carefully considered decisions on whether or not to consult a doctor, many appear to miss red flags, including more experienced parents. Conversely, some become overly concerned with certain specific symptoms such as fever, and few parents are familiar with self-management strategies.

  • Child Health
  • Health services research
  • Child Welfare
  • Emergency Care
  • Paediatric Emergency Medicine

Data availability statement

Data are available upon reasonable request.

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  • ES and LM contributed equally.

  • Contributors ES and LM developed and performed the semistructured interviews, analysed the data and wrote the first draft. PdW and JT wrote the protocol and supervised all steps during the process. PdW is guarantor.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Supplemental material This content has been supplied by the author(s). It has not been vetted by BMJ Publishing Group Limited (BMJ) and may not have been peer-reviewed. Any opinions or recommendations discussed are solely those of the author(s) and are not endorsed by BMJ. BMJ disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on the content. Where the content includes any translated material, BMJ does not warrant the accuracy and reliability of the translations (including but not limited to local regulations, clinical guidelines, terminology, drug names and drug dosages), and is not responsible for any error and/or omissions arising from translation and adaptation or otherwise.