How to Cope: A Medical Illness Affects Everyone in the Family

By Robert H. Phillips, Ph.D.

Any medical problem can certainly have an impact… not only on the individual with the condition, but on every member of the family. The way each member of the family feels about it can affect each other individual, as well as the cohesiveness of the family.

Each member of the family may experience a variety of emotional reactions, ranging from anger and depression to fear of the future or fear of complications. Sometimes family members react more strongly and possibly even more irrationally than the person who’s been diagnosed with the disease.

Some individuals try to ignore or play down the disease. They often do so because they can’t deal with it. They may be afraid of it getting worse. Or they may be unable to accept any role that they believe was a contributing factor (even if this has no truth to it whatsoever). Ignoring or denying it may help them not to think about it, hoping that it will go away.

On the other hand, there are other individuals who think of nothing else besides the disease. They may seem to be obsessed with symptoms, treatment, or other related factors.

What Can Be Done?

There are many ways that families dealing with medical problems can improve their situation. For example, education, support groups, and a variety of coping strategies are valuable for all members of the family. Let’s discuss some specific suggestions for ways to improve the family’s coping ability.

Have a family powwow.

Since all family members are affected if someone in the family is ill, it can be very helpful for all to be able to share how they feel. Schedule time for conversations related to the medical problem and its effect on each member of the family. A family meeting and discussion can help you improve constructive communication within the family.

For this technique to work best, all available family members should be included. Give each person a predetermined amount of time (for example, start with five minutes) to share feelings, gripe, air grievances- even cry.

Remember that the intent of any communication must be constructive. No one else should interrupt. Reactions are permissible, but only after each person has had his or her few minutes. Just getting together to constructively discuss feelings can bring family members closer together.

Strive for good communication.

There are a number of things you can do to maximize the effectiveness of communication between family members. The better the communication, the closer the family, and the more support will be provided from all… to all. Consider the following suggestions:

  • Be cautious and gentle in any feelings that are expressed.
  • Allow others time to think about the issues that need to be discussed.
  • Allow a reasonable but not overwhelming period of time for discussion.
  • Express feelings in a clear, objective, positive way. Avoid threatening, insulting or critical language.
  • Ask claritive questions (in a positive, constructive way) if there are any points that are not understood.

Listen carefully.

Listening is one of the most important parts of communication. If you don’t really hear what others are saying, how can you truly understand what they’re feeling?

Some suggestions include not interrupting when people are expressing their feelings or opinions, making eye contact, and being sure you’re fully aware of what they’re saying. It can often be helpful to restate what someone says in your own words to show that you understand what they’ve just said. (This can also give them the opportunity to correct you if they feel you’ve missed their intent.)

Being a good listener will also set a good example for others- it will show them that you would like them to listen to you, too.

Look through the other person’s eyes.

When you want to communicate effectively, it is extremely helpful (if not necessary!) to view the problem through the eyes of the person you’re talking to. If you’re totally wrapped up in your own point of view, you’ll have a much more difficult time trying to understand anyone else’s feelings or comments. But if you try to see the situation through the other person’s eyes, it will help you when you try to explain your point of view.

Consider implementing additional helpful tips.

There are many additional ways of working together in dealing with a medical problem. For example:

  • Discuss how to make any changes necessitated because of the medical illness. Examples include participating together in exercise programs or special activities, eating healthier, and being a willing participant in nutritional modifications.
  • Try to be extra tolerant and supportive of each other, rather than being critical, during times when symptoms (physical or emotional) are more pronounced. It’s also important to be aware of the difference between medical reasons or non-medical reasons for these changes.
  • Use humor as an important coping strategy.


A united family is one of the most important ingredients in successful coping. Having a medical problem makes family relationships more vulnerable to problems, arguments and even crises. Working through disease-related problems requires much more attention to the feelings of each family member. But it’s worth it. If problem spots can be smoothed out, a cohesive family can really be an asset.


How Can We Help?

Many people from all over the world have benefited from the successful, strategy-packed mental health services offered by The Coping Counselors at the Center for Coping. You can, too!

  • If you have questions about any of the issues you are dealing with, why not set up a free, no-obligation consultation with one of our Coping Counselors.
  • Simply call us at (516) 822-3131, with any questions or to set up your free appointment.
  • Or e-mail us at We’ll be happy to respond to your e-mail.

The Coping Counselors- Providing quality psychological services for more than 35 years!