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.

Would you like to keep these tips handy for yourself or a friend?  Download the tips below:

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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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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