How to Support Children When A Parent Is Diagnosed With An Illness

When A Parent Is Diagnosed With An Illness

Being the parent of an 11- and 13-year-old, I am shocked at the number of families we know that have a parent with a life-threatening illness. When I was growing up, I don’t remember hearing of friends or classmates who had to handle these types of family challenges or stresses. 

Just a few years ago, at my children’s school, three mothers in one grade level received breast cancer diagnoses. I know this is not a statistic per se, but the sheer fact that it is now so “common” is harrowing. One of the most frequent questions I get when a diagnosis has been made is, “What can I do as a parent to help and support my child now that my partner is sick?”

There is no simple answer to this question, but there are things you can do to help support your child to stay healthy, secure, and grounded. And no matter what you do or say, you will have to plan for the unexpected. Sometimes there needs to be a plan A, B, C and D! Maintaining routines, asking for help, and honest communication are just three strategies for sustaining a family dealing with a serious or life-threatening illness. 

Maintain Routines and Schedules. 

Initially after a diagnosis is made, some form of chaos usually follows. This can be part of the process — disruptions in the family schedule are inevitable. However, it can be extremely helpful for children to return to routines that include sleep schedules, meal times, and activities because it re-establishes that sense of stability and security.

You can start by writing out a daily schedule for young children or a weekly calendar for older children. Having a schedule written out will also help those supporting you during this time, such as friends, family and paid childcare providers, to maintain routines when you cannot be the one to carry them out. 

In creating your list or calendar, think beyond the places your children need to be, and also include some of the rituals you maintain in your family such as Friday night dinners, movie nights, or yearly trips. Be sure to include these when thinking about your schedules as well, because they help to create a feeling of normalcy.

Ask For Help.

 We live in a culture that values independence and self-sufficiency, even if it becomes detrimental to our wellbeing. Because of these cultural values, it may be even more challenging for us to turn to friends, co-workers, school personnel, or even acquaintances to help in managing our children’s lives.

The reality is you probably will not have the time and energy to manage and control the minutiae of your child’s day. Those around you really do want to contribute and show their love for you and your family. Sometimes it requires a re-framing or shifting of the lens to see that by allowing others to help and give, you can be giving a gift, too. The joy you provide others in receiving is equally as valuable as the help they are offering. Additionally, by asking or accepting help, you are modeling this behavior for your children, which communicates to them that they don’t have to manage their thoughts and feelings all on their own. 

Be honest and keep communication open. 

Talking about the illness and sharing some of the basic facts are very important when communicating with children. There is nothing worse or more anxiety provoking for children than to learn about the truth of their parent’s illness by overhearing it indirectly or from someone else. 

If there is uncertainty or lack of a clear path to treatment or outcomes, it may be helpful to slowly introduce the illness by discussing the first steps that will be taken, such as “Daddy is going in for an important surgery.” In addition, unless the outcome is clearly grim, it is important to convey a confidence in the process — to even begin treatment one needs to mobilize all the confidence he can. 
Finding the right time to talk with your child would be the first step. Being mindful of when your child is most open to this type of dialogue can be helpful. For young children, bedtime can be one of these moments, while talking in the car or during activities might be more comfortable for older children. The key is to be honest about the facts and your feelings. 

Even though it may feel counterintuitive, it can be helpful to show your own emotions. Doing so will help validate some of your children’s own feelings. You can reassure them that you are there to support them and understand their experiences and emotions. 

There is no right or wrong way to handle these tough moments in our family lives. Every family and every child has different needs. These three suggestions can be a starting point in helping to preserve a sense of well being in your home. Just as all practices in parenting, there is absolutely no “right way.” There is no place for guilt, either — guilt does not benefit you or your children. The key is to stay connected and communicate, maintain normalcy through rituals and routines, and accept the love your family and community wish to show you.

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About the Author: Melissa Benaroya

Melissa Benaroya, LICSW, is a Seattle-based parent coach, speaker and author in the Seattle area (MelissaBenaroya.com). She created the Childproof Parenting online course and is the co-founder of GROW Parenting and Mommy Matters, and the co-author of The Childproof Parent. Melissa provides parents with the tools and support they need to raise healthy children and find more joy in parenting. Melissa offers parent coaching and classes and frequently speaks at area schools and businesses. Check out Melissa’s blog for more great tips on common parenting issues and Facebook for the latest news in parent education.

2 Comments

Aurora

I was such a kid, my mother has a serious genetic illness but when I was a child I didn’t understand anything. I didn’t even hear the proper name of this illness until I was an adult. My mother illness was a taboo in my family and it wasn’t good at all.
I think those advices are really useful and I wish that my parents knew them all in past. This is what I needed.
Actually I have some questions. This illnes is still present in my family so it means that me, my brother, my cousins can get it. We have 50% chance that we already inherited it, but we will know it for sure in older life. But we have a chance to make a genetic test. I wonder – what age is good to let you child know that he or she also can have this illness? This is huge and very scary thing but I don’t believe that hiding this information will be helpful… Is it OK to wait until the person will be a grown up? What do you think about such a situation? Do you have some advices?

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andrea

my close friend had a similar situation…my friend and her sister decided not to have the test because they live everyday positive thinking they might not have it (motorneurone),they were both early 20s when their mom became ill and slowly lost her in stages to the terrible illness.my friend is now 48 has a good life and most of all is happy . wish you and your family a happy healthy life..try to not worry about what not happen. andrea

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Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
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Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
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But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.
"Be patient. We don’t know what we want to do or who we want to be. That feels really bad sometimes. Just keep reminding us that it’s okay that we don’t have it all figured out yet, and maybe remind yourself sometimes too."
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 #parentingteens #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #neuronurtured #braindevelopment #adolescence  #neurodevelopment #parentingteens

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