Helping Kids Cope when a Parent is Sick

By Kathleen McCue, MA, CCLS

The first thing most parents ask when diagnosed with a serious illness is “What about my children?  How do I tell them?  How do I support them?  How do I get them through this?”  It is difficult enough for a parent to face the reality of their own illness, but becomes even more overwhelming when there are children in the family who may be impacted by the reality of the experience.

“A severe parental illness can cause emotional distress and developmental problems for children, but when managed well, the family crisis can produce resiliency and strength for those same children” says Kathleen McCue, author of How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness and Someone I Love is Sick.  “Parents are the best resource for helping their own children, and by using available tools such as the books above, parents can receive guidance in explaining things to children, preparing them for changes and monitoring their behaviors and fears.”

Every family’s situation is different, just as every child is unique.  But there are some general tips that will help parents have discussions with their children about illness.

  • Pick a time when you can talk with your children in depth, giving them information and answering their questions.  The timing depends on when you feel strong enough to speak with hope and reassurance.
  • Address feelings as well as facts. Let children know it’s OK to be mad, sad, confused or scared.  Let them know they may see those emotions in their parents and other adults.
  • Use the name of the disease, even if it’s a scary name like AIDS, cancer, or a heart attack.  This helps children to be able to differentiate between their usual colds and this disease.  Trying to hide the word only sets children up to hear it elsewhere and be frightened, or to imagine something even worse than the actual diagnosis.
  • Tell children the truth, but you don’t have to tell the whole truth, all at once.  Provide information based on the developmental level of your child.  Talk to children about what is most immediate, like an upcoming surgery.  You can provide more information later as treatments progress, or other changes occur.  Expect older children to go to the internet to research the illness, and try to make sure an adult is with them to explain frightening or inaccurate sites.
  • Make it a two-way dialog.  Ask your children what they think and feel.  Be prepared for them to have no comments or questions during the initial discussion, but then come up with all sorts of thoughts while in the car or getting ready for bed.
  • Make sure that all discussions include something positive, something hopeful, and something that teaches children to cope.  Even in the most serious situation, for example when trying to prepare a child for a possible death, there are opportunities to stress the quality of each moment, the special memories the family has, and the love and safety that surrounds the child.
  • Don’t make promises that you are not absolutely sure you can keep.  Don’t promise Daddy will come home from the hospital on a certain day, or that you will always be available to drive your youngster to soccer.  Let your child know that you will try to keep his life as normal and predictable as possible, but that this illness may cause some changes and interruptions in the family’s day-to-day life.  The best you can do is to always try to prepare your child for any alterations or disruptions.
  • MOST IMPORTANT!!  Remind your child that you love him, you will always love him, and that you will make sure there are people who will take care of him and keep him safe.  If you are the person who is sick, your child needs to know that although the illness may make you feel bad, you will still be your son or daughter’s parent, and you will always care for him or her.

Kathleen McCue, MA, CCLS, created a pioneering program aimed at helping children through a parent’s medical crisis, when she was Child Life director for the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.  Since 2000 she has been Director of Children’s Programs at The Gathering Place, Cleveland’s community-based support center for families fighting cancer.  She has appeared on the Today Show and Sunday Today, among other national outlets, sharing her wisdom with families in need.

More information is available in the new revised edition of HOW TO HELP CHILDREN THROUGH A PARENT’S SERIOUS ILLNESS by Kathleen McCue with Ron Bonn (St. Martin’s Press/2011).

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