Helping Children Cope with Family Illness
When an illness occurs in a family, everyone is affected, even the youngest members. Children react to the stresses of family illness very differently from adults. Children often hide their feelings of sadness and fear. In fact, some people would be surprised to learn that many children say they feel invisible within the family unit. They feel forgotten.
The emotional reactions children display are based on several factors, including chronological and developmental age, previous experiences, temperament, personality and how the illness impacts the child’s daily routine. Despite their unique reactions, children have many common feelings about the disruption and uncertainty that the family illness brings.
Loss of Control
It can be very unsettling for children to see adults exhibit loss of control, even if the situation will be short-term. Changes in family roles can be very frightening for children and grandchildren. In fact, some children may even try to take on “parenting roles” themselves. This situation may be made worse by well-meaning adults, who suggest that a child should become the “adult of the house” for a while.
Anxieties and Fears
Illness upsets the natural order of things. Routines change and even treasured family traditions may be put aside, temporarily. This kind of disruption can foster an environment of mistrust, fear and anxiety. Children may wonder why someone in their family became sick or ask questions like, “Why didn’t cancer happen to the family down the street?” They may even begin to worry that something else even worse will happen. Children need to be given truthful facts, using language they can understand.
Need for Assurance
It is normal for children to feel that the world revolves around them. Developmentally, children tend to focus on how an event affects them personally. Young children in particular may have a very difficult time considering the needs of others. Rather than hearing a lecture on selfish behavior, children need reassurance about how their daily needs will be met and by whom. The diagnosis of a serious illness, the treatment period and the adjustment to the impact of illness can be a rollercoaster ride for everyone in a family, especially for the children.
Advice for Adults
- Look for support beyond the immediate family.
- Help children identify caring persons already in their lives, such as neighbors or scout leaders.
- Allow time for family discussions and include the children.
- Maintain as normal a routine as possible.
- Encourage children of all ages to be involved in the care of your loved one without taking on the role of a caregiver. Filling a water glass, bringing flowers, making Jell-O and drawing pictures are some special ways to involve children. Even having the child sit close while watching TV can be helpful to the sick person.
- Help children understand they did not cause the illness. For example, a child may be cautioned to play more quietly so that a grandmother or grandfather can get some rest. If Grammy gets weaker, a child could think their actions caused the decline.
- Tell children the truth about what is happening and what they can expect.
- Allow others to help when they offer. Give them direction about the practical things with which you need help, especially those involving your children and their schedules.
- Remind yourself that during a family illness, children can feel forgotten or less important. Think of ways to affirm their feelings and involve others who can do so as well.