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Explaining Chronic Illness to Your Child

Posted Nov 03 2008 8:56pm

I loved this article and thought it was very helpful. My son is currently 4 and a half and learning a bit more about "mommy's owies." As Christians he's also trying to figure out in his own mind why God heals his owies, like a scraped knee, but not Mommy's. Overall, I thought this article was much-needed and a great reference.

Lisa

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Explaining Chronic Illness to Your Child

Explaining Chronic Illness to Your Child

As a parent, if you become ill, your illness has a profound impact on the entire family system. In spite of your own increased stress, confusion and anger, your children will look to you to maintain or return to normal family routines as soon as possible. If you, or your spouse, present an image of feeling overwhelmed or being consumed with the illness, your children will feel as if life is spiraling out of control.

As parents, it is often instinctive to want to protect our children from hurt or pain. We want them to be carefree and experience the joy and happiness that only childhood can offer. However, as much as we don't want to acknowledge it, children do experience the same kinds of losses and disappointments that we, as adults, experience.

We, as the nurturers and protectors, must explain and "normalize" these experiences in the best way that we can.

No matter what the age of your child, it is helpful to know and understand the developmental stages and how children at each stage can be expected to respond to stress and change. Developmental refers to the concept that a child's behavior, like his physical growth, develops in patterned and predictable ways. The age and goals of your child at each stage will guide you in how and when you need to intervene when your family goes through a crisis.

The first developmental stage -- infancy up to age two -- is probably the easiest in terms of knowing how to respond. The primary developmental goal is to establish trust. The child is completely dependent on the mother (or primary caretakers) to have basic physical and emotional needs met. With love and nurturing, the infant (and older baby) will thrive and grow.

Adults generally assume that a baby is too young or unaware to notice a change in a parent or family. However, infants and babies are extremely intuitive and can sense when a parent is upset or anxious. Any change in daily routine can throw a baby into a fretful state. When crisis occurs, you may see the following behaviors: increased crying and irritability, changes in appetite and sleep schedules, clinging behaviors and regression. Separation anxiety, which occurs routinely, becomes exaggerated. The baby will develop offensive behaviors. Treat regressive behaviors casually and return to a normal routine as soon as possible.

If your toddler asks a question about your illness, answer openly and honestly. A rule of thumb is never offer more information than the child has requested. Concealing the illness or whispering about what is happening will not help. Children always suffer more from the tension of not knowing than from knowing the truth. Allowing the child to act out fears and frustration through play or art is also an excellent help.

Preschool, ages four to five years, is the age of expansion. Preschoolers are ready to move out of the safety zone of the home and into a broader social arena. There is an increased reliance at this stage on "magical thinking." To a preschooler, anything that happens, good or bad, is related to them and their behavior. If a parent becomes ill during this stage, the preschooler's view will be: "Mommy is sick because I told her she was mean."

In response to stress and change, preschoolers often present with extremes, either being all good or all bad. This is the child's attempt to maintain a sense of control and to feel less frightened. Regressive behaviors are likely to occur, especially an increased reliance on a favorite security object (blanket, teddy bear, thumb-sucking).

To help preschoolers, it is essential to assure them that the illness is not their fault. Returning to a security object should be encouraged, rather than discouraged. Answer all questions honestly, including those about death. This is a good time to rely on books which help you help your child work through complex and often frustrating feelings about illness.

The primary development goal of the school-age stage (six to ten years) is achievement. The focus is school, outside activities and developing strong peer relationships. While parents and family are still central, the biggest concern is: "What will happen to me if you are ill?" This self-centeredness is normal.

Although there is still some overlap with magical thinking, by the age of eight children realize that illness may not be their fault. However, they still are not mature enough to remove themselves completely from the situation. The thinking now is: "If I'm good, Mommy will feel better and things will be fine."

School-age children tend to show strong emotions in reaction to change. They may show anger at both parents: "Why did you let this happen?" They tend to have a lot of somatic complaints (headache, stomach pain, fatigue), especially when leaving for school. The child is often fearful to leave the ill parent; he or she often assumes a protective role. Earlier in this stage, children are fearful that if they leave, the parent may die. As such, preoccupation and fear of death may be common.

When attempting to help school-age children, it is important to recognize that angry outbursts are an attempt to grieve or release fearful feelings. The opposite reaction, denial, may also occur as the child hopes that the illness will just disappear. Children will have many more questions and concerns at this stage. However, only the simplest explanations need be given. Information they don't understand will only frighten them and increase anxiety. Questions about death must be answered directly; evasion leads to more fear.

Changes in school performance, either for better or worse, are common. It is essential to let teachers know about the changes at home and to establish a feedback loop.

Our final stage of development is adolescence. The primary goal is to develop a self-identity that is capable of independent action. Adolescents work to achieve separation from parents and to become independent of the family system. This stage is a painful one for both parent and child, as both struggle in this journey toward separation.

Under normal circumstances, adolescents are known for their emotional volatility and moodiness. When a crisis occurs, you may see and hear even more expressions of anger, hurt and confusion. The opposite extreme is also common -- they may withdraw completely and not want to discuss your illness or their feelings about what's happening. There will be ambivalence about helping you. If you have an adolescent who is willing to do his or her part in helping the family, this will not extend to outside the home. Fitting in and acceptance by peers will be much more important than appearing helpful to the family. It is normal for them to be embarrassed by the illness and not want to discuss it with friends or teachers.

This is an essential time for parents to fine tune their communication skills. It is imperative to listen to and understand the volatile outbursts of the adolescent. Accept these feelings without overreacting to their tone. Continue to set limits, rules and boundaries, but keep the task of separation in mind. These outbursts are often fear-based.

At a time when they often feel out of control, teenagers cling to the hope that parents and family will remain structured and safe. Remember, even though he or she appears grown, your adolescent needs as much love and reassurance as your younger children.

In discussions about your illness, be prepared to give much more detailed information, especially all the facts about the illness. A major concern or fear will be: "Will I get it too?"

Some adolescents (the withdrawing ones) may not want to hear about or discuss your illness. They may express anger or disappointment toward the ill parent. These behaviors serve to diffuse their own fears or feelings of inadequacy in controlling the changes that are occurring or may occur in the future. Honest and open discussion of your own feelings may help them to express their own feelings.

One of the most difficult obstacles for parents of the adolescent is to overcome the expectation that he or she will be mature enough to handle the situation and to provide support. In actuality, they are overburdened with their own concerns and too vulnerable to carry the adult concerns.



In conclusion, the following reminders are offered to help you during times of crisis:


- Your children, like mirrors, reflect adult stress and behavior.
Be assured that most children experience times of high stress, confusion and frustration, yet still manage to develop and maintain a healthy sense of personal worth.

- Your children still need limits, rules and structure. Be the same parent you were before the illness.

- Discuss plans and decisions with your children commensurate with age and level of understanding. The more a child is included in planning, the more your relationship will be safeguarded.

- Do not assume the problem behaviors that a child exhibits in times of high stress will be permanent. However, if behaviors persist or worsen over time, seek professional help for the child and the family.


Jan Buxton-Truffer, MS, CEAP, is a counselor with the Sheppard Pratt Health Plan Employee Assistance Program.

Minnesota Lupus News, February / March 1998, reprinted with permission from Lupus Update, Maryland Lupus Foundation Newsletter, LFA, March 1997.

=========================================================== This information is for"informational purposes" and is not meant to be used for medical diagnosis. Always consult your physician on matters such as this.

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