Disciplining a Very Ill Child

How to keep things in perspective.

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Q: Our 7-year-old has had two heart transplants and isn't expected to live long. Bearing that in mind, I find it difficult to discipline her when I "look at the big picture" rather than what is going on at the moment. I know her older sisters resent this terribly. Do you have any suggestions?

A: My heart goes out to you and your family. We never know exactly what life is like for other people. But having walked in similar shoes, I think I have some idea what you are experiencing. I know what it's like to sit beside a child, praying to God, with desperate conviction, that you could trade places.

I have one piece of advice that might be of some help to you and your family. You mention "the big picture." Looking at your daughter's life and the bad thing that life has dealt her, I'm sure you keep thinking, "She doesn't deserve this!" The big picture leads you to all kinds of big emotions and big questions, as it should. The trouble is that we carry over these big emotions into everyday issues and events, such as whether or not a child cleans up after herself. There is nothing tragic about suffering a reprimand.

Try to think about it this way. If you treat your daughter as if saying no to her will hurt her, you both will come to believe that every little disappointment in her life is as big a deal as life and death. In doing this, you deceive both yourself and her. It makes everyday life consequences part of a big-picture drama. Believe me, this will confuse her, and it will keep you on an emotional roller coaster that will wear you down. When you are tempted to give her special consideration because of how unfair life has treated her, say to yourself, "We can't do anything about that. But we can do something about her room, her behavior, and so on." In other words, do not mix up the emotional importance of the big picture with the emotional UNIMPORTANCE of her reactions to everyday discipline.

If she pinched her finger, you wouldn't treat that with the same gravity as post-operative pain. And if you did, you can see that you would be doing her and yourself a big disservice. Every little hurt isn't on the same level of importance as a big hurt. Your concern about her reactions to discipline works the same way. If you treat her like every little emotional disappointment is in the same league as big picture issues, you both will come to believe it. So give yourself a break from the emotional stress. Let ordinary life back in. Heaven knows, you and your family deserve that.