“Mommy doesn’t feel good.”
Hearing these words can have a profound impact on a child. Whether the parent’s illness is chronic or catastrophic, or even a temporary condition like a cold or the flu, children may feel as if their own wellbeing is at risk. Household routines may change. The ill parent may look or behave differently. Treatment may include the involvement of unfamiliar faces, like healthcare professionals, or hospitalization. All of this can leave children feeling confused and scared, even if they appear to be taking it all in stride.
Here are some ways to help children cope with the illness of a parent:
Give age-appropriate information coupled with lots of reassurance. When children don’t have any information to go on, they make up their own stories. These stories aren’t grounded in reality, and can greatly increase their fears about the future, sometimes even leaving them wondering if they are somehow responsible for their parent’s illness. Stay optimistic when talking to your child – beginning with reassurance that the doctor is working hard to help you feel better. Talk with a therapist or other child specialist if you aren’t sure what your child is ready to hear and when your child is ready to hear it.
Encourage your child to express his feelings. Just because children don’t appear to be worried doesn’t mean they aren’t. Children learn to stay positive out of fear that they will cause their parents additional stress. They may also interpret your own insistence on maintaining a positive attitude as a signal that they aren’t supposed to express their own feelings. Start the conversation by simply asking how your child is feeling, along with reassurance that you want to hear whatever it is they want to tell you, even the ‘scary stuff.’ Give a few extra hugs and reassuring words.
Maintain family routines. Day-to-day routines provide children with a sense of comfort and safety, so even the simplest shifts in what’s normal at your house can leave them feeling scared or confused. When you aren’t feeling well, or are preoccupied with your own concerns, you may have days when you are tempted to overlook the details, like making sure you are stocked up on their favorite breakfast cereal, or sitting with them to watch Saturday morning cartoons. Stay on top of the little details of daily life, and get some help here if you can’t.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Make a list of everything that has to get done and then do some cherry picking in terms of what you want to handle yourself and where you will need someone else to jump in. Relatives and neighbors can be enlisted to give you a hand with housework, grocery shopping, or providing transportation to extracurricular activities. If you are partnered, or have teens, they may be able to help out with younger children. Save your best energy for the tasks that bring the most quality of life for you and your children together – having lunch, going to the park, doing homework. This may also be a good time to invite the grandparents for a visit if they can give you some temporary backup.
Accept help from your child. It is human nature to feel helpless when a loved one is not feeling well, and when we feel helpless, we want to do anything possible to feel like we are doing something – anything – to make things better. Give your child the opportunity to do you a favor, something as simple as helping you make dinner or perform other household chores. Better yet, find projects that you can work on together.
Don’t neglect your own wellbeing. Remember that you can’t take care of others if you aren’t also taking care of yourself. Listen to your doctor’s recommendations, and listen to your own body. Make sure you are following your treatment plan and getting adequate rest. If you find that you aren’t able to get the rest you need, reset your priorities and see where you need some additional assistance. Don’t try to be supermom or superdad (even if that means the house isn’t quite as spotless as usual, or if the dishes stay in the sink a little longer).
Find a safe place to express your own feelings. What’s going on with you emotionally? Children are very perceptive, and they can sense when their parents are worried or scared or otherwise trying to keep their feelings bottled up. Feelings don’t go away by themselves. Talk with someone you trust – a friend, family member, a member of the clergy, or a therapist. If you’re clear on how you’re feeling about your illness, you’ll be better able to help your children with their own emotions.
While stressful, illness can provide an opportunity for growth. Children can learn to be more independent, and you can develop a deeper relationship with your children that includes sharing of emotions and joint problem solving.
DR. GARY McCLAIN is a licensed counselor and author with an office in Manhattan, and a website, www.JustGotDiagnosed.com. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.