As parents we may not see warning signs that a child is in pain or suffering, due to their mother or father battling cancer. It’s important to remember that it is not only natural but expected for children to have enormous emotional reactions when their parent is ill or passes away due to cancer.
Kids are often quite good at hiding some or all of these emotions. On the outside they may appear to be okay because they are playing or staying active and occupied. It is our experience, however, that they are anything but okay. We know this because of the many children we have helped at the Center who tell us the different types of pain and emotion they are experiencing. The unfortunate truth is no one knows.
When kids are told that their parent has cancer, frequently they are the first to ask “are you going to die”? Teens usually say nothing. After that time there is little discussion with the children or teens. Kids tell us that at night they cry themselves to sleep. When I ask, “Have you told your well parent?”, they say “No.” They pretend to be okay because they don’t want to add to the stress of either parent, especially the one who has cancer.
It is not uncommon to have kids tell us that they worry about their parent all of the time. For some kids, school is a good place to hide and forget, but for others it is a fog. Almost all teens tend to stay away from the house in an effort to avoid facing the reality of what is happening to their parents, their family and themselves. As adults, we can appreciate their challenges. Going to school and learning is hard work on its own. Add to the challenges of school and being a teenager with the grueling reality of having a parent they love and adore battling a potently life threatening disease can be too much to bear.
Recently, we had a young girl we were working with at the Center, whose mother had died. She and her mother had been arguing just before her mother fell into a fatal coma. The young girl thought her mother died to get away from her. Luckily, the family had been coming to the Center all during the mother’s illness and we were able to talk to the little girl about all of the wonderful sessions and all of the wonderful things her mom had told us about her.
Once again, this is just one example of how the Center can help you and your family.
There are few things harder than having a child with cancer. Family life revolves around caring for the child with cancer with little time for much else. Being at the hospital or doctor’s office is more common than not. In a family where there are more than just one child, for the well siblings, this means lots of time with a parent, or both parents absent. Once again, the kids try hard to protect their parents by not being a bother, but the disruption is usually too much for them to handle quietly.
When a sibling is sick it brings up a multitude of emotions ranging from guilt and anger to sadness and depression. As parents we are not available, so different caretakers and schedules are put in place. No one can keep track of the schedule and it becomes even more challenging to keep up with the emotions your well kids are feeling.
The child with cancer, on the other hand, is dealing with things in quite a different manner than their siblings and in many cases, much differently than even their parents. Children with cancer are usually quite resilient and upbeat, when compared to the enormous amount of pain and suffering that the treatments present. They recover quickly and are glad for the times they feel a bit better. They are eager to play and be with their siblings and friends. Their challenges are around not feeling well, agitation due to feeling sick, issues of isolation, and issues of being treated differently by peers, because of their appearance, when they can play.
Children and teens in post treatment can find themselves facing emotional, physical, and academic challenges,due to the short and long term side effects of the treatments.
The Center is of great help in managing both treatment and post treatment issues for the entire family. For the kids we help them deal with the stressors of treatment and recovery through play and art therapy. Children and teens alike are very verbal and honest about the cancer, how they feel, and how their families are doing. It is through play and art that these conversations happen, that they can express their thoughts freely and we can help them with tools to feel better.
For the parents, the Center is often the first time that a parent can sit quietly and express and process the enormous amount of pain that they carry around all of the time. Parents tell us that they spend so much time having to be strong for the children that they have had no place for themselves. Parents report feeling “overwhelmed and exhausted”, that they are angry and irritable and find themselves yelling at everyone for no reason. They often report that once they started talking to us there was a flood of relief, and a new found energy to deal with the family in a more supportive and proactive way.