Riding the emotional rollercoaster
Reacting to the news
Children can react very differently to the news that someone is seriously ill. They may be very upset and may cry or be angry. However, don’t be surprised if they ask to go back to their TV programme, computer game or simply ask “What’s for tea? ”This doesn’t mean that they don’t care – but it’s sometimes hard for them to understand and respond to what’s been said straight away. It can take children a while to express their fears and uncertainties after hearing the news.
You may also find that the experience of telling your children suddenly makes what is happening feel more real to you. Be prepared for your own reactions and seek out those who can support you at this time. Allow yourself to be supported by family and friends.
“When I told the children their dad had gone to the hospice, my seven-year-old looked terrified and tearful. Some days later I learnt from his older sister that Sean had thought he might have to be adopted as mum would now have to go to live with dad at the hospice. Slowly I allowed myself to see the last year through his confused, bewildered eyes. I realised then how little I had prepared and involved him in what was the biggest event of his life. All he knew was that family life was under threat; his playmate dad couldn’t play any more – no-one had thought to explain to him that his dad had cancer, was having complicated treatment and how worried we all felt when the pain required hospice admission. The older children knew a bit more, but as a family we were so busy protecting each other that we somehow stopped talking about the important stuff. The nurse helped me to find the words to explain and to find out what Sean was really thinking and feeling. We held a family meeting at the hospice. We cried, we laughed, we hugged – the Robinsons were back on track. Together we could deal with the rollercoaster ride ahead.” Mona
Give and take
Living with a serious illness can be exhausting for everyone concerned. The mixture of uncertainty and hope can be draining, and treatment can be very tiring.
Warn your children that the people around them are likely to be distracted, emotional and irritable. That’s natural. This is a time in the family for give and take, and for not taking things too personally. Everyone will be on a short fuse. Praise children who want to help and be involved. At the same time, show understanding to those children who need to be distracted and distanced from the day-to-day reality.
Children may show little or no immediate reaction to the news, but they often show they are upset in other ways.
- Some children may cling to you too much, terrified that something will happen if they are not there.
- Some children may withdraw from you, unconsciously trying to become more independent.
- Some children may feel sorry for themselves, and then feel guilty that they are not supportive of their parent.
- Some children may decide to be especially good, setting themselves impossibly high standards.
- Some children may show their frustration by being unco-operative, dismissive and angry at everything.
- Some children may be quite ‘hyper’, laughing and over-excitable as a way to disguise real feelings or their lack of understanding.
- Some children may experience minor physical symptoms which may be ‘real’ but brought on by stress, for example stomach and headaches.
- Some children may become a bit fixated, for example on washing their hands a lot because they are afraid they will ‘catch’ the cancer or illness too.
- Some children may regress, feeling vulnerable and ‘little’ inside. This may show itself in lack of concentration, bedwetting, sleep disturbances, thumb-sucking and temper tantrums.
All these feelings and reactions are natural and normal; let your child know that you understand them and are here to help them manage these feelings. Most of these feelings will settle with time.
Coping with frustration
If their behaviour is out of control, your natural impulse might be to scream "Don’t you know dad’s sick? You are so thoughtless!” Instead, try saying it in a slightly different way, but with a firm grasp on giving children boundaries.
A mother who developed cancer was still on chemotherapy and feeling very rough at the time of the following incident. She describes what happened after 11-year-old Tom had started to misbehave regularly: “I remember so clearly my utter fury at Tom when he defied me and swore at me. I suppose I suddenly realised how far I’d let the discipline side of things slip. I really lost it and screamed at him. I think I was afraid my lovable boy was turning into a horrible brat. After I stopped shouting, Tom calmed down and became very cheerful and loving. I think children need to feel that someone other than themselves is in control.” Lena
Tom’s recollection of the swearing incident was also interesting. “Well, when mum heard me swear, she totally lost her temper. She screamed at me that she was in charge and I wasn’t allowed to be rude! I went and got my school bag fast. I felt better than I had in a long time. I think now I was rude on purpose to see if mum was really in there. She was. We soon made up.” Tom
Very young children need security, security and security. Stick to the routines you have at nursery, meal times, sleep and bedtimes. For school-aged children, try to maintain the activities they value and create opportunities for them to ask the questions that may be troubling them. They will also value the reassurance of a normal routine and also times when this is abandoned for something more important such as:
- a shared activity when ‘mum is feeling better tonight’
- a game that lasts right to the end and not just till tea time
- an important conversation that needs to continue
- They will also appreciate reassurance about what might happen to them in the future. Even the children of two healthy parents are reassured to know who would look after them if anything happened.
“I’ve told them that Val and I have every intention of living to see our grandchildren but that, if anything happens, their aunt and uncle would look after them.” Simon
How teenagers may react
Teenagers also vary in how they react to a parent’s serious illness. Many may become even less communicative, picking up on family tension but saying very little. They may feel they want to stay around home a lot and help out, especially if they have younger brothers and sisters. Or they may feel that they’d rather be anywhere else, so want to stay out with friends and try to forget what is happening. They may find it hard or even impossible to talk to you, preferring to get their support from their friends, and they may find things like details of your illness embarrassing. Normal teenage behaviour can seem less tolerable when someone is ill.
Encourage your doctor or nurse to talk directly with them so they feel part of what is happening. The most important thing is for the family to try to keep talking together and for them to know they are valued, can be involved and will be trusted with information when they choose to have it. Some teenagers may try to escape from their worries through excessive drinking and drugs or through self-harm. They are expressing their pain and overwhelming emotions and these need to be acknowledged. The opportunity is then there to talk about other, less harmful ways to express some of these fierce feelings. It may also be the time for some outside help.
Getting professional help
Most families can cope with a serious illness and, if they can talk about what is happening and how they feel about it, they often surprise themselves by how well they actually cope. It is often when families can’t talk that they find they have difficulties. So, above all, try to keep talking to each other, even if your communication starts off with ‘post-it’ notes on pillows, bedroom doors or fridges.
Parents sometimes think their children need professional help as soon as a serious illness is diagnosed. This may be because they feel helpless faced with children’s reactions to the news. Most families somehow find the resources to support each other, even through the most difficult of times.
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