Navigating the unknown: understanding and managing parental anxiety when a child is ill

Arch Dis Child. 2023 Aug;108(8):654-658. doi: 10.1136/archdischild-2022-325220. Epub 2023 Mar 16.


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.

Keywords: Child Health; Child Welfare; Emergency Care; Health services research; Paediatric Emergency Medicine.

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety / diagnosis
  • Child
  • Fear*
  • Humans
  • Parents
  • Physicians*
  • Qualitative Research