Children and Parental Illness
By Samuel Zaks
When a parent is diagnosed with a serious illness, spouses, siblings, and grandparents are all impacted, but children are particularly vulnerable. A variety of factors, including dependency on parents for safety and security combined with fertile imaginations make this experience uniquely challenging.
With the population increasing and the incidence of cancer and genetic diseases rising, the number of affected children continues to grow. Concerned adults (including parents, family, friends and educators) need to acquaint themselves with the impact of parental illness as such situations unfortunately become more prevalent.
While there is no exact recipe or timetable for how children react, it is important to note some classic situations. Some children may appear carefree while inwardly experiencing strong feelings that they are unable to express. Other children are reluctant to talk for fear of making the situation “too real” for themselves. Yet others do not want to add to their family’s burden by making their parents worry about them as well. Many children, consciously or subconsciously, seek to preserve a semblance of normalcy, and therefore react to parental illness with avoidance.
One of the biggest concerns for children is their fear of the unknown, so it is important to be open about the basics of what is happening by providing age-appropriate information about the illness. Armed with this knowledge, and the care and concern in which it was delivered, children are better equipped to craft a healthy approach toward the new realities at hand.
There are a number of points that parents can keep in mind to help children understand and process parental illness:
1) Prepare. It can be beneficial to first discuss, perhaps even rehearse, the upcoming conversation to anticipate possible obstacles. Tone of voice and body language will greatly impact the child’s sense of security. If you feel it may help, discuss a strategy with an experienced professional.
2) Set the scene. Choose a comfortable setting, such as a family room sofa, and arrange to eliminate interruptions (e.g. turn off your phone). Allow plenty of time for the discussion.
3) Inform. Provide age-appropriate information. There is no exact formula for what to impart. Issues that should be considered include: the name of the disease, likely side-effects, treatments and medical equipment that will be visibly in use. Give some short-term time frames. Addressing the issues, as only you can, will help children to incorporate the new reality into their life’s routine, minimizing disruptions by making them more manageable.
4) Respond. Consider questions children might ask so you can be ready with clear, honest and appropriate answers. If they ask something you don’t know the answer to, assure them that you will explore the issue and get back to them as soon as you can. This validates their questions and offers comfort and security in knowing that you will resolve their uncertainties and concerns.
5) Emotions. Suppressing your emotions can trigger various difficulties, including frustrating yourself and teaching children not to express their own feelings. If you feel comfortable being open about your feelings it can be tremendously beneficial to both you and your children. You need to be sure, however, that you are not perceived, or misperceived, as falling apart. That can be exceptionally frightening for children of all ages.
In some cases, allowing a child to help with illness management in some way can empower them. Letting them bring medication bottles or nebulizers to their parents may provide some sense of control, allowing them to feel that they are “dealing with” the illness. Other children, though, may feel angry, afraid or put upon by such chores. Caution is needed to find the correct balance for each child. Bring up the possibility and carefully gauge their responses, both verbal and nonverbal, to get a sense of their feelings.
Going forward, make sure to allow questions, provide answers, verbally validate children’s feelings, and offer plenty of positive reinforcement. And always remember that children have a natural resilience — it is our job to ensure that no matter what happens, we are available to them to nurture that resilience.
As Executive Vice President and founder of Chai4ever, Samuel Zaks has established programs and services that provide a safety net for families struggling with illness. A passionate non-profit professional with over 20 years of experience, Sam takes a results-oriented approach, which allows him to develop strategic partnerships to benefit those in need and bring concept to reality. In 2013, Sam recognized a void in the area of social services for families with a seriously ill parent, and founded Chai4ever to provide critical support. Sam’s strong leadership has made Chai4ever the premier resource for families struggling with illness, helping hundreds of families across the United States and internationally. Visit www.chai4ever.org for more inform