Diseases often strike without warning and leave us very little time to find the words that will reassure our children. Whether it is due to cancer, strokes, cardiac disorders, multiple sclerosis, lupus or any other degenerative disease, it’s always difficult for parents to accept their vulnerability and to explain it to their children. However, specialists are unanimous, it is best to always tell the truth. Here are some ideas to help you see more clearly through your doubts and concerns.
Should I tell a little or a lot?
If you can hide ulcers and high blood pressure, you can’t do the same with serious degenerative diseases. Either way, a child who has a sick mother very quickly gathers that something is wrong. He will see the comings and goings at the hospital, feel the anxiety of relatives, hear parents whisper and realize that he sees his babysitter a lot more often.
It’s not very wise to let children draw their own conclusions. Before they imagine the worst, it is better to address the issue with them, using truthfulness, but also sensitivity and empathy. By knowing what’s going on, they can see the progression with their own eyes and understand the pace and severity of the disease. They will also ask any questions that come to mind rather than inventing their own answers, often far worse than reality.
According to Isabelle Moley-Massol, physician and psychoanalyst in Paris, it is important to talk about illnesses gradually and in clear words: "The disease should be named, but step-by-step. Naming the disease means that we can talk. It’s also a way for the child to tame it. What is monstrous, is the unspeakable"
Managing the guilt
Once children know that their parents are sick, they must be supervised and talked to regularly to ensure that they do not feel responsible for the disease. As surprising as it may seem, many children fear that diseases happen because of them. They are afraid to have wished harm to their mother when they argued or remember that they had been told to stop screaming because it made their mom’s head hurt. That’s how many children end up believing that they are responsible for a stroke, for example.
We must therefore ensure that children don’t develop a sense of guilt that would disrupt their normal behaviour for fear of repeating the experience and make someone else sick. Also according to Isabelle Moley-Massol, children confuse thoughts and deeds. If they believe in an event and that event happens, they feel guilty.
Prepare a transition
A good way to manage a transition during convalescence or treatment is to artificially reproduce your presence. For example, record stories that your child can listen to before going to sleep or tell your days in writing and send your letters every day. You can also leave a schedule on the refrigerator that will help your children get ready for your when you are at home as well as for hospital visits.
Encourage them to draw or craft and bring their creations you. These gifts will give them the impression of having a positive influence on events rather than suffering and being powerless.
Even after addressing the illness gently, it is likely that your child will be very upset by this news. Keep an eye out for possible depression and react accordingly, which means meeting with your hospital staff that can refer you to specialists. Depending on the type of disease you have, a specialized psychologist may be recommended and will find the right approach to support your child.