When a parent is sick for an extended period

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  October 24, 2011 06:00 AM

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Barbara,

I suffered a severe concussion this past January and was told my recovery could take over a year. It has been almost 9 months and I am just beginning to be able to stay awake more than 18 hours a day. [Ed note: 18 is what the LW wrote, but I'm assuming that's a typo and she meant 8.]

My concern is that my 6 year-old-son is having an extremely difficult time with this. I am grateful that he is verbalizing some anger and frustration, which I encourage him to do. He alternates between worrying I will never get better, to being angry that I can't attend his soccer games. Other than reassuring him that I am still his same mmom and will always love him, what can I do to assist him?

Thanks!
From: IM4Quality, Waltham, MA


Dear IM4Quality,

Start by reflecting back to him what he's saying and feeling: "I wonder....you're thinking that mom is never getting better. That mom will never be able to go to your soccer games....." Leave some space after you say that. Because even when you tell him you will be alright, or that you're feeling better, what he sees -- his reality -- is that you still aren't going to his soccer game. You still aren't the mom you used to be. So your reassurances present him with a discrepancy between what he sees and what you say.

Strive to answer him truthfully at a level he can understand. When children don't have information they need to make sense of what's happening, they make up stories. And then repeat, repeat, repeat. "It seems like it's taking a long time, but I will get better. When I'm all better, I'll be able to go to soccer games." Or: "I still can't go to soccer games, but I'm really good at listening to you read." This is a great time to find ways to do something new together: board games, crafts, etc., that you can do side by side. Other times tell him, "I know you want to play with me right now, and I'd like to play with you. But right now I'm feeling tired and I need to rest." You can also tell him: "I'm getting better inside my body, but it's hard to see that."

Whenever a parent is sick, it's scary and threatening; when a parent is sick for an extended period of months, it's not unusual for a child to become depressed, to act out or to regress. It helps for both parents, and all caregivers, to be on the same page with what information you give him. Lack of consistency will make him distrustful and more frightened.

Lastly, give your son some concrete ways to be helpful to you, from bringing in the mail to drawing you a picture of what he did at school.

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2 comments so far...
  1. The worst thing you could do would be to dismiss him emotionally by telling him that since your illness is worse than his anger and fear that his feelings need to take a back seat to your health problems. Some parents really do that, and it is a good way to teach children that they don't matter. The fact that you are conscious of his feelings enough to care to seek advice tells me that isn't your path, but you might want to keep an ear out for the possibility that someone might say something to that effect to him in a misguided way of trying to be helpful. The antidote, of course, if that does happen, is doing what Barbara recommends. If you show him you care and that you get it it will counter much of the stupid things some people say in these circumstances.

    Posted by merilisa October 25, 11 05:26 AM
  1. IM4Quality,

    If your son is enrolled in school, the school psychologist can be a great resource. He or she may be able to check in on your son during the week and give him a few moments to talk about his feelings. The psychologist may also be able to share other resources (books, support groups) with you.

    I wish you a speedy recovery.

    Posted by Jenn October 25, 11 09:04 AM
 
2 comments so far...
  1. The worst thing you could do would be to dismiss him emotionally by telling him that since your illness is worse than his anger and fear that his feelings need to take a back seat to your health problems. Some parents really do that, and it is a good way to teach children that they don't matter. The fact that you are conscious of his feelings enough to care to seek advice tells me that isn't your path, but you might want to keep an ear out for the possibility that someone might say something to that effect to him in a misguided way of trying to be helpful. The antidote, of course, if that does happen, is doing what Barbara recommends. If you show him you care and that you get it it will counter much of the stupid things some people say in these circumstances.

    Posted by merilisa October 25, 11 05:26 AM
  1. IM4Quality,

    If your son is enrolled in school, the school psychologist can be a great resource. He or she may be able to check in on your son during the week and give him a few moments to talk about his feelings. The psychologist may also be able to share other resources (books, support groups) with you.

    I wish you a speedy recovery.

    Posted by Jenn October 25, 11 09:04 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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