Parents and Chronic Illness

Letting Kids Be Kids

The effect of chronic illness on children is often the most heartbreaking part for a sick parent. On a family trip to San Diego, for example, McDonough was upset to realize how Shane already walks slowly on purpose in order to accommodate his dad. "I hate that. Sure, I love that he's so thoughtful. But I don't want him to have to think about slowing down just for me."

Roll has been there too. "There are days when I have a flare-up, and I just need to go to bed," she says. "And I'll tell the kids, 'Mom is having a bad MS day.' I try to be matter-of-fact, but I worry that if I tell them too much they'll think they are losing me."

Finding that middle ground is key, says Susan McDaniel, Ph.D., director of the Institute for the Family at the University of Rochester. Trying to hide your illness can be very damaging, she explains: "Even young children can pick up those vibes, and it's scary for them. So the trick is to find an age-appropriate way to say, 'Mom is sick, and there are some times when she needs to 'rest.'"

It's also important not to dump too much responsibility on children, relying on them to help you or oversee a younger sibling, insist the experts. "Get help from other adults and then go back to the business of being a parent as soon as you can, and help children know that the adults in their lives will find ways to let them be kids, not caretakers," says Dr. McDaniel.

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