It's not easy to learn that you or your spouse is sick. Even more difficult is sharing the news with your child. What do you say? What do you do? How do you support your child while coping with the news yourself? We talked to experts for advice to help children cope through a parent's illness.
It might seem like a good idea to try to keep the illness a secret from your child, but he will notice something is wrong. If you aren't forthcoming about what that something is, he'll make scary assumptions, some of which may be worse than reality. "It's important to provide honest, developmentally appropriate information to your kids so they can begin to deal with whatever it is they are facing," says Renee Dominguez, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and interim program director at the Chicago Child Trauma Center at La Rabida Children's Hospital. For young children, give only basic information: "Mommy is sick and will be going to the hospital to try to get some help to make her body feel better," Dr. Dominguez suggests. Then explain that the sickness isn't like a cold or stomach bug. Let your child know she won't get sick just because Mommy is sick. If you have a teen, you'll need to give greater details, such as the type of illness, because they'll have more questions and will likely look for additional information.
Answer any questions as best as you can. If you don't know the answer to something, it's fine to admit it. Some books that can be helpful to kids include A Treasure Hunt for Mama and Me: Helping Children Cope with Parental Illness by Renee Le Verrier and Samuel Frank, M.D. and Where Did Mommy's Superpowers Go?: Helping Kids Understand a Parent's Serious Illness by Jenifer Gershman.
Your child will experience many emotions about your illness. Let him know it's okay to be sad, mad, confused and scared. Tell him he may also see some of those same emotions from you, friends and family, and even the ill parent. Sometimes kids worry that they're at fault for the illness because they did something wrong, says Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Powerful, Practical Solutions to Overcome Your Child's Fears, Worries, and Phobias. It's important to tell your child that he didn't do anything to cause the illness, that sometimes these happens and that it's no one's fault, Dr. Chansky says.
Be Careful With Promises
Sure, you want to be as optimistic as possible, but be careful with what you say. Don't tell your child, "Of course Dad will be home for your birthday party" or "I'll always be here to tuck you in bed." Making promises you can't keep could damage your child's trust in you. When she asks something and you don't want to offer false hope, simply tell her that you (or Dad) will do your best. The same is true if she asks tough questions, such as whether you're going to die. Instead of telling her "Of course not," let her know the doctors are working really hard to make your body better.
As much as possible, try to continue your family's normal habits. Keep bedtimes, naps, mealtimes, and any family schedules--like Taco Tuesday or Friday game night--the same. Your child needs consistency to feel a sense of security during this challenging time.
Help Sustain Connections
When a parent has frequent stays in the hospital or is unable to do a lot because of fatigue or pain, kids may not feel as connected to the parent. It's important to find ways to connect within any limitations the parent might have, Dr. Chansky says. You can suggest that your child sing a song to her dad while he rests in bed, read a story to him, tell jokes, and play board games. If Dad is in the hospital, take her to visit and arrange for her to speak with him often. Another idea: Purchase a journal that Dad can write or draw in and then send home. Then your child could write something or add her own creative input (like stickers or magazine cutouts) and send the journal back to the hospital. This allows both the parent and child to stay connected in a way that is fun and tangible, Dr. Chansky says.
Watch Your Child
When a spouse is ill, or you're dealing with a health issue yourself, it can be easy to focus so much on the illness that you aren't as available to your child. It's important to spend quality time with your child and reassure him that you, Dad, and other family members love him and will continue to take care of him. If you need to, don't hesitate to call on family and friends to help you prepare meals, clean, do errands, or spend time with your kids while you rest.
In addition to helping your child feel important, spending time with him gives you the opportunity to see if he's having trouble coping with the illness. If your conversations aren't helping your child feel better, or you notice sleeping difficulty, changes in his eating patterns, aggressiveness or withdrawal from family and peer relationships, the experts say it's time to obtain help from a professional.
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