How to Help Children Through a Parent's Serious Illness: Supportive, Practical Advice from a Leading Child Life Specialist

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9780312697686: How to Help Children Through a Parent's Serious Illness: Supportive, Practical Advice from a Leading Child Life Specialist

How to Help Children Through a Parent's Serious Illness has become the standard work on an important subject. A classic for over fifteen years, it continues to be a go-to book for supportive, practical advice, based on the lifetime experience and clinical practice of one of America 's leading child life practitioners.

Fully revised and updated, this new edition also explores the major issues and developments from the last decade that affect children today, including the dangers and opportunities of the Internet, a deeper understanding of how hereditary diseases affect children, the impact of the nation's explosive growth in single-parent families, and new insights into how family trauma and a parent's mental illness may affect children.

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About the Author:

KATHLEEN MCCUE, M.A., C.C.L.S. pioneered the care and treatment of children stressed by a parent's grave illness in her renowned clinic and playroom at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. She then founded and continues to direct the children's program at The Gathering Place, a support center for families touched by cancer, in Cleveland.

How to Help Children Through a Parent's Serious Illness is based on her lifetime of experience in the field she helped create.

RON BONN, a three-time Emmy Award winning television journalist for CBS News and NBC News, now teaches journalism at the University of San Diego.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

How to Help Children Through a Parent's Serious Illness
ONEThe First Day of the Rest of Your LifeCalvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson
You hear the words: “You have cancer.” “You have M.S.” “You have a brain aneurysm.” “You need a heart transplant.” The first thing you think about is your own life. And the second thing is: “What will happen to my children?”
BALANCING YOUR NEEDS AND YOUR CHILDREN’S NEEDSHere are two things that happened in our program at the Cleveland Clinic:A young mother was being treated for cancer. She and her husband decided not to tell their nine-year-old son any details—too disturbing; why worry the boy? We’ll just say Mom is sick; she’ll be better soon.But then the child began “acting out” in school—fighting with playmates, disrupting classes, falling behind. So the parents brought him to our program.When I met him, the boy was grumpy—angry with his family, annoyed at being haled before a child life counselor. Yet behind all that he wanted to talk, and very soon he did talk.He’d overheard his father on the telephone, speaking gravely with a relative. He’d heard the words “malignant melanoma” and suspected they had something to do with cancer. And he was furious. He explained why in three sentences: “They didn’t tell me everything. She’s my mother. I have the right to know what’s going on.”The boy was absolutely correct. And what he said points up one of the central themes of this book: The children of seriously or gravely ill parents always have the right to know what’s going on. Not only is that knowledge their right; it is one of their greatest needs.The second story involves a father, a successful and self-assured businessman recently diagnosed with lung cancer. Once again, the parents decided not to tell their children, a nine-year-old girl and a six-year-old boy. The parents were pretty sure the children knew anyway, and they were right.The children always know. Or, at least, they always know something.The normally cheerful little girl was constantly sad, suddenly breaking into tears. One night she begged her mother, “Whatever you do, tell me the truth. Tell me Daddy’s going to be okay.” Neither realized that the little girl was asking for two different things. So the mother did what she thought was right: She told her daughter something she wasn’t at all sure of: “Of course he’s going to be okay.”The boy’s symptoms were even more disturbing: While previously he’d never shown much interest in toy guns and warfare, suddenly all his play was about killing. He ran around, indoors and out, making finger guns, shouting “Bang, bang, you’re dead.” Death was the constant message; of his sister he said, “I just wish she was dead.” The boy was now totally indifferent to his father; it was as if the father were not there.Counseling the parents, I told them what to me was obvious, and what is the central message of this book:
You must tell your children the truth.
We’ll talk a good deal throughout this manual about why that’s so. But for the moment, here are three reasons:
1. Your children are affected by everything that happens in the family.2. The more serious the situation, the more they will be impacted.3. Lying to your children, in any way, will inevitably make things worse.
But this father resisted; he was adamant that his children not be told of his lung cancer, even though they obviously already knew. And finally he told me why:“Don’t you understand? If I tell the children I have cancer, that means I really do. How can I fight this thing, keep a positive attitude, do what the doctors say I must do, if I acknowledge that?”Like the reaction of the boy in the first story, the father’s reaction was absolutely normal. For anyone diagnosed with a serious illness, the first thought is for the self: How can I live and fight; how will I handle the long, intense, perhaps painful course of treatment; how can I cope with the possibility, however unlikely, that I may not survive?For a while, everything revolves around the self. Only afterward come thoughts of family, of how this most personal crisis may impinge on the people we love. Yet the needs of those loved ones, particularly of our children, are immediate and pressing.(In this case we reached a compromise: The father agreed that his wife should tell their children the full truth about his lung cancer. But she would also tell them, “Daddy can’t talk about it now.” Frequently, in the first days and weeks after diagnosis, it is the well parent who must deal most directly with children’s needs and questions. We found an acceptable interim solution, until the father could deal both with the disease and with his children—until he can “talk about it now.”)Two needs collide: the patient’s need to do whatever it takes to try to survive (if that includes fantasy and magic, so be it) versus the child’s absolute, inescapable right and need to know the truth. The tension between those two needs is where this book begins.MAKING YOUR CHILDREN PART OF YOUR TREATMENTWe believe very deeply that, when a parent is seriously ill, the children must be treated right along with the adult. Indeed, the children’s treatment is part of the parent’s treatment.Ideally, treating your children begins on the day of diagnosis—the day you learn that you or your spouse has a serious, possibly life-threatening illness. That is the best moment to bring your children into the frightening picture.But: · It is almost never too late to start doing things the right way. Specifically, whatever point you may now have reached in your family medical crisis, whatever has already happened that may be creating problems for and with your children, right now is not too late to start handling things better. And that’s because:· Mistakes made with love are easy to correct.Avoiding the Biggest MistakeThe guiding principles, from the beginning to whatever the end may be, are openness and honesty.Being honest can be painful. Nevertheless, dishonesty, even with the honorable goal of protecting the children, may be the single biggest mistake you as a parent can now make.We are looking at the rest of your children’s lives. If they are deceived, lied to, “protected” from the truth, they will learn a lifelong lesson of distrust. There may be nothing more important in their lives than that they continue to trust the two people they love most—the parent who is sick and the parent who will continue to care for them.Counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists see them in their thirties and forties. And they say, “Doctor, I can’t love anyone.” And so often, when you look back, there was a real break in that love during that person’s childhood. Very often the break can be traced to the illness or death of a parent—a break never brought out and handled by the child.Children Are Stronger Than You ThinkThere is one thing I count on absolutely in my work with families and that you can count on now: Your children love you. Because they love you, they can handle what is coming; they are much stronger than you think possible. What we must do now is build on that love and so build that strength.As this medical crisis forces its way into your life and your children’s, what we will try to do is maintain a sense of trust and continuity of parenting—so that, whatever happens, your children retain their trust in the world and in the people who care for them and care about them. THREE THINGS TO TELL YOUR CHILDRENWhatever your children’s ages, what you are going to do at this point is: · Tell them you are seriously ill.· Tell them the name of your disease.· Tell them your best understanding of what may happen.(As we’ll see shortly, being honest does not mean telling everything. Children can absorb different levels of complexity at different ages, and you are the best judge of what your own child can understand. What it does mean, simply, is never telling anything but the truth.)Before we go on to how to tell children at different ages, let me tell you one story that illustrates why they must be told.A young mother was diagnosed with cancer. It was a kind of chronic leukemia whose treatment causes few visible symptoms; the parents decided they’d spare their nine-year-old daughter the worry. All the child knew was that Mom was going to the hospital now and again to get some medicine, not even staying overnight. No big deal.One night, about two weeks after the mother was diagnosed, her daughter woke up in the middle of the night screaming.She couldn’t move her legs.The little girl was rushed to Children’s Hospital and evaluated thoroughly. There seemed to be no medical reason for her paralysis. The pediatrician—fortunately, a very good one—asked the mother whether anyth...

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