A parent's chronic illness
can rock a family to its core, but how you talk with your children
about your illness can make a huge difference in how they adjust to
the news and in how they cope.
TIPS FOR PARENTS
When should you tell them?
Your desire to shield your children from pain and worry is
natural, but children are intuitive creatures. They can sense when
something is up. Keeping them in the dark for too long can heighten
their anxiety, because their imaginations may conjure even worse
scenarios and outcomes than might ever be realized.
There is rarely a perfect time for the first conversation, but
aim for a calm moment when everyone is fed, rested and not rushing
out the door. You may decide to discuss your illness with older
What should you say?
Be concrete. Name your illness and don't be afraid to use the
word 'cancer.' Explain that while it's serious, these days there is
more hope than ever for a cure.
Eventually, your kids will want to know what your illness means
for them. It's natural for younger children to wonder, who will
take care of me? Who will take me to school? Older children may
worry about whether there will be enough money for the family. Will
I have to move, will I lose my friends?
Older children may also wonder if they'll be asked to take on
more responsibility. You may feel guilty about asking for their
help with chores or child care, but understand that what you'll be
teaching is priceless: that pulling together and pitching in is
what people do for each other when the going gets rough.
That said, aim for balance. Don't overtax older children with
too many new responsibilities, and make absolutely sure that you
tell them that it's OK for them to have fun and still be kids. Make
sure they have time for friends and that the family still finds
ways to have fun together.
Your children may handle news of your illness differently. One
child may become helpful and solicitous while another may
experience and express feelings of betrayal and anger. No matter
your children's ages, it's only natural that they might temporarily
regress in some area (potty training, school, etc.).
Tell your kids what else can be expected during the course of
your illness and treatment. You may need more rest, feel pain,
vomit, experience hair loss and may even require hospitalization
from time to time. Let them know that a hospitalization doesn't
If death is a real possibility, be honest, particularly if your
children ask for this information directly. Let them know that you
and your doctors are doing everything in your power to overcome
your illness, and that if death is imminent, they'll be told.
Children need time to say goodbye. While this can be heartbreaking,
depriving your children of this experience can complicate their
Whether or not your illness is terminal, you may observe
unconscious 'preemptive strikes' against you. For example, your
child may withdraw or withhold affection, a sort of emotional "I'm
leaving you before you leave me," kind of behavior. These reactions
don't always occur, but if they do, try to respect your child's
obvious need to take some kind of control at a time when everything
else feels outside his control-but don't be afraid to set limits
when necessary. He still needs to be parented.
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and
family therapist in private practice in Batavia. She has been a
clinical member of The American Association for Marriage and Family
Therapy since 1995.
Jennifer DuBose, M.S., C.A.S., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Batavia.
See more of Jennifer's stories here.
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