When Mommy or Daddy Gets Sick
Gary R. McClain, PhD
“Mommy doesn’t feel good.”
Hearing these words can have a profound impact on a child. Whether the parent’s illness is chronic or catastrophic, or even a temporary condition like a cold or the flu, children may feel as if their well-being is at risk. Household routines change. The ill parent may look or behave differently. Treatment may include the involvement of unfamiliar faces, like healthcare professionals, or hospitalization. All of this can leave children feeling confused and scared, even if they appear to be taking it all in stride.
Give age-appropriate information coupled with lots of reassurance. When children don’t have any information to go on, they make up their own stories. These stories aren’t grounded in reality, and can greatly increase their fears about the future, and can even leave them wondering if they are somehow responsible for their parent’s illness. Stay optimistic when talking to your child – beginning with reassurance that the doctor is working hard to help you feel better. Talk with a therapist or other child specialist if you aren’t sure what your child is ready to hear and when your child is ready to hear it.
Maintain family routines. Day-to-day routines provide children with a sense of comfort and safety, so even the most simple shifts in what’s normal at your house can leave them feeling scared or confused. When you aren’t feeling well, or are preoccupied with your own concerns, you may have days when you are tempted to overlook the details, like making sure you are stocked up on their favorite breakfast cereal, or sitting with them to watch Saturday morning cartoons together. Stay on top of the little details of daily life, and get some help here if you can’t.
Find a safe place to express your own feelings. What’s going on with you emotionally? Children are very perceptive, and they can sense when their parents are worried or scared or otherwise trying to keep their feelings bottled up. Feelings don’t go away by themselves. Talk with someone you trust – a friend, family member, a member of the clergy, or a therapist. If you’re clear on how you’re feeling about your illness, you’ll be better able to help your children with their own emotions.
While stressful, illness can also provide an opportunity for growth. Children can learn to be more independent, and you can develop a deeper relationship with your children that includes sharing of emotions and joint problem-solving.For more information on Dr. Gary, visit his website JustGotDiagnosed.com or at Arthritis Connect .