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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How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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