Helping children cope when a parent is sick
When my children were young teens, my wife had surgery. Between the hospital stay and her recovery, she was out of commission for a month.
My two teenage daughters handled their mother’s surgery and recovery quite differently. One wanted to come with me to the hospital when Diane was in surgery. The other one wanted to go to school. Both seemed to swing between genuine sympathy for their mother and annoyance when their lives were disrupted. This peaked when my 14-year-old fell into a fury over her hair. “When are you going to take me to the hairdresser? I look like a drowned rat!" she barked. My wife and I looked at each other in despair. Our daughter seemed more concerned with her appearance than with her mother’s health.
In another case, far more extreme, I listened to an 8-year-old boy talk about school and friends. Joe’s father was dying of cancer and had very little time left. His mom wasn’t sure how to talk to Joe about his father’s illness--she wasn’t doing so well herself.
During the course of childhood, most children will experience times when one of their parents is ill. It is not unusual for an adult to have an acute minor illness. Major illnesses or injuries can also occur. And many adults suffer from chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, arthritis or heart disease.
For kids, these periods of parental illness or incapacity can be unsettling. Younger children are often confused and frightened when a parent is ill. In their eyes, adults are still all-knowing and all-powerful. Children may express their fear by developing sleeping problems, wetting their bed, regressing to a younger age, or by behaving badly.
Some children, when confronting a chronic, incapacitating adult illness, may become emotionally flat. Their emotions become constricted out of fear and anxiety. Sensing that their parents are unavailable, they may withdraw into themselves and develop their own chronic problems such as bed-wetting or night terrors. Children may also show their anxiety by developing stomachaches or headaches.
Teens are usually involved in three important concerns---themselves, themselves, and themselves! Absorbed in their own needs--e.g. solving a bad hair day, they forget about everyone else. Parents can also be fooled by the apparent maturity of some teens. They may believe that their usually mature 13-year-old is capable of understanding and coping with a parental illness. Adolescence is a period of great developmental instability--a time where youngsters can go from spring to winter in an instant.
So how can parents help their kids cope with a parental illness or injury?
- Help younger children verbalize their fears and anxieties. You may want to suggest to your child that he may be afraid because “Mommy is sick.” Younger children may need reassurance that their parent will get better, even if the illness is a minor one.
- Ask for help. In the case of a longer or more serious illness, parents may want to ask for the help of other family members and friends. Children depend on their parents and may find it frightening when their parents are unable to be there for them. Relatives and friends can help to pick up some of the slack, which is useful for both parents and children. Sometimes helping children verbalize their feelings is more useful than reassurance. Children may also feel angry and disappointed that their parents are unable to take care of them. This is sometimes hard for parents to hear since it seems so irrational. But feelings aren’t rational!
- Be honest. This, in extreme circumstances, can take a great deal of courage. While children may not always be able to process the information they are given, they will appreciate that they have been told the truth. Illness is often experienced as a betrayal of the body. Dishonesty, to a child, is a betrayal of the heart.
I recommended to Joe’s mother to tell him the truth about his father’s impending death. This was a heartbreaking moment for her. While this didn’t give Joe much comfort, at least he felt that he was no longer alone with his fears.