Five Keys to Helping Parents Comfort Their Children
The most important thing children need from their parents is for them to be present in their lives. When you are supporting a family experiencing cancer, its important to encourage parents to trust their instincts and do what they believe is best for their child. Nobody knows their children like they do ? and ultimately what a child appreciates the most is the connection they share.
Parenting is all about relationship. Parenting is about being available and being present with their children. Even when parents are not at their best, they can reassure them that its the best they have at that moment, and thats what counts.
Here are Five Keys to Helping Parents Comfort Their Children*:
1. Stay Connected. Perhaps the best thing we can do for families dealing with cancer is to help the parents stay connected with their children. Encourage parents to find creative ways to communicate with their children and assure them they are loved. This may mean finding new ways to spend time together and new activities that they can do together. Parents need to know that it is okay for them to change their normal routine with their children to accommodate their new situation.
2. Be Honest. It can be challenging to know how much information to give a child. Generally speaking, the amount of information to give a child should correspond with their age and maturity. It may be helpful for the parents of very young children to look at picture books and talk about how a healthy body works and how cancer can affect it. Older children may be helped by understanding the doctors plan to fight the cancer and what the next steps will be. Listen to the concerns and fears parents express about being honest with their children. Empathize and validate these feelings but always encourage them to be honest.
3. Check-in Periodically. Every child is unique and this means every child will respond differently to a cancer diagnosis in their family. Some will express themselves freely and ask endless questions, others will suppress their thoughts and feelings. When you are providing cancer support for a family with children of any age, it may be helpful for both you and the parents to check-in with the children occasionally by simply asking how they are doing.
4. Be Vulnerable. Again, the best thing parents can do to help their children is to stay connected. Instead of putting on a brave face, parents who are vulnerable and open about their emotions are giving their children permission to express their emotions. Parents can also help their child process their feelings by sharing how their personal faith plays a role in helping them cope.
5. Avoid Time-Frames. Obviously the hardest conversations between parents and children will involve the possible end of life. If there is no definite information, its probably better not to have the discussion. Even if the doctor has suggested a time-frame, its best not to discuss it with the children. If death occurs before the anticipated date, the child may get angry or lose trust in the other parent?You told me I had until then!?Or if nothing happens by that date, they may lose confidence in the doctors. Its generally better for families to take things as they come and talk about changes as they happen.
The best approach is to keep things simple. Parents should be honest with their children about the fact that everyone dies, but keep their hope alive by telling them that they are doing everything they can to get better. The parent can assure the child that whatever happens, its not happening today. Since children often feel anxiety when they dont know things, the parent can promise to let them know if something changes, so the child will always know what to expect.
When you help parents support their children through their familys journey with cancer, you can give them hope by reassuring them that their children are more resilient than they think. Remind them that their children need them. Parents need to keep in mind that no matter what happens, their children need the comfort only they can give them.
*Derived from Jennifer Rogers Child Life Staff Supervisor, Honor Health Scottsdale Shea Medical Center and former Palliative Child Life Specialist, CTCA, Goodyear Arizona