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Helping Children Cope with a Parent’s Illness

Coping is a highly individual process. What works for one person will not inevitably work for others, and what might get you through one circumstance may not get you through another. We subconsciously and consciously collect information to analyze a situation and select a coping style. Not only do we analyze the current situation requiring us to cope, but we also search our memories of past events to try to understand how to manage each new situation.

What happens when we are not given all of the information that we need to understand a situation? What happens when we do not have any experience that allows us to predict an outcome? Unfortunately, this is the situation our children may face when a parent is sick. Adults may attempt to protect children from stressful situations by masking the truth or pretending that nothing has happened. Children are extremely perceptive and insightful, and they will sense that something is wrong. If children are not told the truth, they will use their creative minds to conjure a seemingly appropriate explanation.

When explaining a parent’s illness to a child, use simple, age-appropriate language, giving examples by drawing on emotions and feelings that the child knows. It is important to be honest, and allow plenty of time for questions. When some time has passed, have another talk to make sure that your child truly understood the conversation, as well as to respond to new questions and concerns. Sometimes children do not know the words to appropriately express their feelings. Parents can tune into their children’s nonverbal expressions of coping. Temper tantrums, crying, withdrawal, and physical aggression are all nonverbal expressions that children may use to cope with their emotions. Plan activities, such as drawing, playacting, etc., with your child to give him or her an outlet for these feelings.

A change in routine sometimes adds to feelings associated with lost control. Many persons, and especially young children, are much happier when they know what to expect or when they have a “set routine,” because it allows them to mentally and physically prepare for a situation. Parents have little control over doctor appointments and treatment effects. However, they can try to keep children’s daily routines as consistent as possible. For example, if six-year-old Maria has gone to baseball practice every Tuesday afternoon, but now her mother cannot drive her because it conflicts with treatment appointments, a friend can drive Maria to practice. If Sunday dinners are always at Grandma’s then try to uphold that tradition. Not only will you preserve a sense of routine, but you will also provide them with important sources of support. Parents can also develop new routines for their changing lifestyle.

Talk to your child about the different people that they will see in the hospital (nurses, doctors, patients, visitors), what they wear and about their jobs. A number of children’s books give parents appropriate words to explain hospitals and doctors to their child, as well as medical play kits that introduce children to medical tools used by doctors and nurses. Call the hospital to ask if a Child Life Specialist is available to give your child a tour of the hospital (there may even be a playroom).

Communicate with your children, allow them to express their feelings, prepare them as well as you can for new situations. Afford them the luxury of routine; allot time to be with them. Above all, take the time to care for yourself so that you have the strength and patience to care for your child.

Author: Carrie Tredwell, MA 

Editor’s Note: Ms. Carrie Tredwell, MA works as the grants manager for The Brain Tumor Society and holds a Master’s Degree in Child Development.


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