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Parental Illness: Helping Children Cope

When a serious parental illness strikes, parents need to be armed with the tools to help their kids cope

When a parent becomes seriously ill, children can be fraught with uncertainty, insecurity and confusion. But if they are given appropriate information, reassurance of routines and emotional support, youngsters can emerge from the ordeal with a sense of strength, stability and security.

Shannon Baldwin found this to be true. When her husband Barry was diagnosed with bone cancer in his right leg, the couple told their sons, then ages 6 and 10, their father’s leg was hurt and the doctors were going to fix it. At first they seemed unaffected. But as the disease progressed, so did the boys’ concern.

“When we found out Barry’s leg was going to have to be amputated, I sat down and told the boys he had cancer and what was going to happen,” says Baldwin. “That night they had a lot of questions. Their initial thought was, ‘How is this going to change my dad?’ So I reassured them, ‘He’s still going to be your dad. He’s still going to help with homework and take you to the movies. Only now he’ll have one leg.’”

Open the Lines of Communication
When parents face a serious illness, experts suggest they be honest and positive about what they know but titrate how much information they share based on the child’s age and developmental level.

“Also consider his temperament,” says Valerie Molaison, Ph.D. and clinical director for Supporting Kidds, an organization that provides healing for grieving families. “Some children do well with lots of information, others get overwhelmed. Gear the information to what you know about your child.”

Jeff Kendall, Psy. D., an expert in cancer psychology, agrees. “The younger the child, the more you’ll need to explain what it means to him personally and how it’s going to affect his life: ‘This means you’re going to have to help with chores for a while.’”

Jill Schroeder did this when she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“I told the kids that while I was in treatment, their grandparents would pick up the older two after school and keep them until I got home, and the youngest would stay with them all day,” she says of her then 3-, 6- and 8-year olds. “When the time came, our youngest seemed the most affected and was worried I wasn’t coming back. I think part of it was his age, but part was due to the fact we had adopted him the year before, and prior to that he had been in several foster homes.”

Find a Routine; Stick to It
“One of the most difficult things for young children to understand is the disruption in routines,” says Molaison. “Routines provide structure and a sense of security, so little ones will do best if parents can maintain their schedules.”

If this is not possible, try to incorporate a few of your child’s familiar activities, such as reading at night or eating breakfast together, into his new routine. And like Schroeder, lean on loved ones for support.

“When parents can’t be available, designate one person who is already close to the child and can anticipate his needs and lend emotional and practical support,” says Kennedy. “Even then, parents should check in with their child and let him share his feelings and ask questions.”

This is particularly true with chronic illnesses and extended treatment plans. Also talk with your child’s teacher to see if the situation is affecting him at school. Finally, look for ways to empower your child by enlisting his help with simple household chores, creating get-well cards or participating in special events. The Baldwin boys did this.

Get Empowered
“Last year my kids participated in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life on Father’s Day weekend,” says Baldwin. “They needed to raise $25, so they took the money from their savings account then we camped out and walked the next morning. It was something they knew they could do to fight cancer.”

Schroeder’s kids found ways to feel empowered too.

“When chemo was over and I got the negative PET scan results, my family planned a celebration party for me. And on the last day of radiation they did another one,” she says. “They loved doing it. We were all happy those milestones were past us.”

And remember trials present opportunities for growth.

“My kids have definitely grown from the experience,” says Baldwin. “They’re more focused on raising community awareness about cancer, have learned how to deal with people who are disabled and can empathize with others in these kinds of situations.”

Schroeder’s youngest learned empathy too.

“One night after I had lost my hair, I went in to check on my son after he had gone to sleep and there was a pair of child-sized scissors in his bed,” she says. “At first I thought he had just cut paper and didn’t put them away. But the next morning, I realized he had cut his hair on one whole side of his head. When I asked him why he did it, he said, ‘I want to be like you, Mommy. I want to be bald like you.’”

Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children.