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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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