Parenting can be one of life’s most rewarding experiences, and one of the most demanding. When a chronic illness is involved, demands on the family can increase substantially. Family stressors can affect the ill parent, family relationships and a child’s development, but with awareness of the impact of this stress, some flexibility and support, those with a chronic illness can flourish in their role as a parent.
One area in which chronic illness can affect the family is the parent’s ability to participate in physical activities with their children. The ill parent may find that playing in the park or walking the dog is simply too strenuous. They may believe they would be better parents if they could be more physically involved, but these parents can engage with their children just as much as other families by choosing activities that accommodate their illness.
The process of coping with a chronic illness can impact the parent’s capacity to care for children consistently. For example, a parent experiencing depression may be temporarily unable to provide the emotional attention and involvement they wish for their children. Because children are often sensitive to changes in a parent’s mood or emotional state, it is important for the family to be aware of this dynamic, consider the experience from the children’s perspective and determine what accommodations can be made.
Roles and responsibilities may need to be adjusted so the household functions effectively. Single parents, who may not have a partner to help care for the children, manage the household and contribute income, may have a harder time coping. They can consider building a strong network of a few friends or family members to pitch in, or tap into community programs for the help they need.
The kind of environment a family creates is important to a child’s social, emotional and behavioural development. Children can be sensitive to adults’ anxiety and uncertainty and, if family changes have not been explained to them, they may rely upon their imagination (often erroneously) in trying to understand what is happening to their parent or family.
It is also important to ensure that children take on household tasks that don’t interfere with their school work, attendance and participation. While they may understand they need to chip in, they may also resent the disruption of their own activities or plans.
Seeing one’s parent in the hospital can also be upsetting to children. Younger ones may have a harder time coping with their parent’s absence and might be fearful about the reasons for the stay. This is another time in which open communication will help the child cope.
Though parents with a chronic illness may face unique challenges, the critical elements of being a parent—the love and the guidance children look for—need not be affected. Children who have grown up in a family touched by chronic illness often feel they have learned something extremely valuable about priorities in life. Today’s parents can help establish those priorities and, together, experience all that life has to offer.
What can a parent with chronic illness do?
Inform yourself. Check in with organizations related to your illness for resources and support. Talk to people in a similar situation for tips or a sympathetic ear to lend.
Take good care of yourself. Where possible, make time for yourself to help deal with personal and family life challenges.
Talk to your children about the illness in an age-appropriate manner. Allow them to express concerns and provide them with the reassurance they need to cope. Children react differently depending on their age, nature and relationship with their parent, but in general, honest and open communication is the way to go. Let your children know that it’s okay to feel scared, angry or sad.
Encourage children to ask for your help with homework and support them in their extra activities. Children are always glad to have the parent nearby to see their skills in action. When you can’t be there, explain why not and offer a rain check or alternative activity.
Remember your children need you. Make sure they know they have your love and support. This includes effective discipline, giving them appropriate responsibilities and behaviour guidelines.
During hospital stays, establish a way to communicate with each other if children are not permitted to visit. Regular phone calls can help allay a child’s fear of their parent being away for a long time.