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
- It’s very important to reassure children early on that their other parent won’t get sick and that your illness is not contagious.
- Remember that they will take their cues from you about how to react and how worried to be, but remember to be ‘real.’ It would be unnatural if they never saw you feeling sad on occasion.
- Consider that assigning small tasks to children of any age, even something as simple as refilling their sick parent’s water pitcher each morning, can help to ease some of the helplessness children of chronically ill parents often feel and help them to feel like they’re part of the solution.
- Give your child’s teacher and school counselor a heads-up about your illness so they can be supportive and on the lookout for any concerns.
- Ask your doctor or hospital for referrals to peer support groups for children whose parents have a chronic illness. Discovering that they are not alone with their worries can be a tremendous relief.
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 children first.
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 equal death.
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 grief.
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.