Chronic Communication at Home: Your Kids Are Listening and Watching

Hiding your health problems from your kids doesn’t work. Here’s why—and what to do instead.

Chronic Communication at Home: Your Kids Are Listening and Watching

By Dr GaryCA Published at July 25 Views 701

Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.

John and Ally have recently had some serious talks. Ally is going to need to move to a new medication for her chronic condition. It is much stronger than her current medication. She may experience some side effects, including the risk of a catastrophic condition further down the road. Also, the copayments are going to be much higher.

They are both worried. They have been careful to not discuss their concerns in front of their two children, ages six and eight, for fear of scaring them. They’ve made it a point to be as upbeat and positive as possible.

An unexpected question

Ally was surprised at something their eight-year-old said to her on Saturday morning while she was making her children’s breakfast.

“Are you and Daddy mad at each other?” she asked.

“What makes you think that?” Ally answered.

“Because you go in your bedroom and talk a lot. Once I could hear you crying,” she answered. “And you look unhappy.”

Ally reassured her that everything was okay. But she wasn’t sure how convincing she was. Later that evening, she recounted the story to John.

“Wow,” he answered. “We thought we were keeping up a good front. But obviously, we weren’t.”

Who do you think you’re keeping secrets from? Certainly not your children!

What Ally and John learned from their child is a lesson parents learn over and over. Children are listening, even when you think they aren’t. And they’re watching. As a result, they may know more than you want them to know. Or they may make an assumption, correct or incorrect. The lesson? You aren’t half as good at hiding things from them as you think you are.

What about at your house? Have your kids ever surprised you with what they knew, or thought they knew? Here’s what to do:

First, don’t assume they aren’t perceptive. As Ally and John learned, even young children pick up signs that things aren’t quite right between their parents. Kids are sensitive to change—in routine, in facial expressions, in tone of voice. Sure, they may not be able to discern what’s going on, but they know something is.

Consider the risk. The problem with your children’s discernment is that, for better or worse, chances are they won’t know what’s really going on. As a result, they may assume something catastrophic and react accordingly. Or they may even assume they are somehow the cause of the problem. Either way, this can result in emotions, like fear or guilt, that are out of proportion to the situation.

If you get caught, come clean. Respond in a way that is appropriate to what your children can understand at their age. For example, when questioned by her child, Ally could have said something like, “Mommy’s doctor wants her to try a new medicine. I may need a little more help from you and Daddy sometimes.” To further explain new limits on her energy, Ally might have also gone on to say, “And we’re going to do some really fun things around here for vacation next year, instead of taking a trip.” A teenager, on the other hand, would expect to know more, including the name of the medication and possible side effects. You know your own children and what they can understand. But don’t underestimate them!

Avoid uncomfortable situations by being proactive. It’s normal for any parent to want to protect their children from information that might leave them feeling scared. And one of the scariest things for kids is to think that a parent might not be able to take care of them. But again, lack of information—when something is obviously going on—can cause kids to create stories in their minds that can intensify their feelings. So think about the best way to keep your children in the loop, rather than how to best hide information.

Remember, your kids want to protect you, too. Most likely, your children are aware that you worry about how your chronic condition is affecting them. They know, for example, when you are pushing yourself extra hard on a day when you aren’t feeling well. And they know when you are being extra upbeat when you talk about your condition. So they may hold back on talking about what they are hearing or observing and hold all their feelings inside, or talk with each other when you aren’t around.

Encourage an open exchange with your children. When everybody holds back, that big old elephant named fear is given free rein to walk around the house. Everybody knows it’s there, but nobody wants to acknowledge it. And fear can take many forms. Like your fears about your chronic condition, or your fears about how the kids might be affected. Your kids’ fear about how your condition might be affecting you and them. And everybody’s fear of talking about a scary topic. Sit down and talk together. Bring the fear into the open.

Let your children team up with you. Supporting you in living with your chronic condition can be a growth opportunity for your children. Let them give you some encouragement and pitch in when you need a helping hand. Give them information, again based on what you think they can understand and will not find overwhelming. Hold regular family meetings to give everybody a chance to share thoughts, feelings, and questions.

You, your chronic condition, and your children. As the old saying goes, honesty is the best policy. So, make it your policy to make your home a place that is all about sharing. After all, we’re all in this together!

How do you help your children deal with worries about your health? Share your advice by commenting below.

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