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Childhood Illnesses and DisordersBeginning to Heal Emotionally
My youngest son was diagnosed with a life-threatening blood disorder just five days before his first birthday. I had found a strange looking bruise on his tummy and decided to take him into the pediatrician, knowing that it just didn't look right. Since that day almost three years ago, we have faced all kinds of doctors from herbalists to allergists to hematologists, to try and find a cure. We have come to terms with the fact that some things in life don't have an easy answer.
One fateful day thereafter, I heard a psychologist speaking about coping with the psychological affects of disease and disorders. Light bulb! She was talking to me, right? If my stomach had been perpetually tied up in knots, how did my older child feel about having his Mommy gone for days at a time, or spending hours upon hours at the doctor rather than the park?
I had focused so hard on curing the physical aspects my son's disorder, I had completely neglected the toll it had taken on the entire family's emotions.
Along with child and family therapist Monica Schaly, I began to delve into our wounded hearts and psyches, looking for answers. Together we sat down and mapped out some guidelines that apply not only to our family's situation, but also to any family dealing with childhood illnesses or disorders. Whether you have a child who suffers from something relatively minor, such as chronic ear infections or something life-threatening, such as cancer, or other chronic condition such as asthma, autism or ADD, the first step onto the path of healing begins when you acknowledge your emotional pain.
All of the strategies may not be entirely appropriate for everyone dealing with a childhood condition, especially since younger siblings are often too young to recognize that there is anything amiss. On the flip side, some of these ideas will apply to people who aren't coping with serious issues, since all families have problems to contend with.
Talk about it. Start a discussion about how your child or their siblings may be feeling. Listen to their answers, and stay in tune with their behavior.
Recognize normal emotional responses. Fear occurs when people feel that something is coming that they may not be able to handle. Anger is invoked when a situation seems unfair, abnormal or disruptive to everyday life. Confusion can be caused when a child can't understand what is happening. Depression is a feeling that we experience with loss and lows. All are valid emotions, so talk about, accept, and normalize your children's feelings. Help them to remedy their thoughts by encouraging them to be optimistic.
Assess your own feelings. Overlooking your own feelings toward your child's disease or disorder can lead to both physical and emotional illness. It is important that you also remember to take care of yourself. Have or build a support system (friends, family, therapist, relevant support groups) with whom you can talk about your own thoughts and feelings.
Be honest. Don't make promises that you cannot keep. Communicate your real feelings to your children in an age-appropriate manner. If you are honest, direct and gentle in your communication with your children, that will help decrease and alleviate their confusion, fear, and anxiety.
Facilitate play. Children express their feelings, thoughts and inner struggles through their play. By providing them with specific toys to help them express themselves, parents can help the child to understand and overcome some of their unresolved feelings. Buy a doctor's kit or doctor/nurse dolls to encourage your child/children to "play out" their feelings.
Seek counseling. If the emotions that you or your children are feeling are overwhelming, seek help from a licensed professional such as a social worker, mental health counselor, family therapist or play therapist. A child's warning signs include regression in school, thumb sucking, persistent nightmares, bedwetting, increased aggression, social withdrawal or other unusual behaviors.
Relax. Don't let your child's condition take control of your mind and spirit. Children take their cues from adults.
Lead by example. When it is time for your child to return to the doctor or therapist, encourage them to have a positive attitude about it. Although these moments can be draining, dramatizing appointments or treatments can only make the process worse. For that reason, it is important to keep your words and actions upbeat.
Take one day at a time. It really can be overwhelming to think about the reality of dealing with a long-term or lifetime condition. It might even feel impossible at times. When you find yourself worrying about tomorrow, try and bring your focus back to getting through today. Simplify the situation by taking it one day at a time.
Embrace gratitude. When faced with a hardship, it puts everything else in life into perspective. It helps to be thankful for the small battles won and the moments of normalcy. Life is so much brighter when experienced with extreme amounts of gratitude.
Empower them. Talk to your children, spouse, friends and teachers about ways they can help make the situation better. In doing so, they can stop feeling helpless, and you can stop taking on the universe alone. (You know who you are).
To the friends and neighbors of the affected, I imagine walking a day in the shoes of the mother of a chronically ill child. Have compassion, and if you are so moved, ask how you might be of help. It may be that the mother is in desperate need of respite. Your offer to babysit might be rebuffed at first, but keep talking. Often, the caregiving parents simply need someone to listen, someone to care.
In the end, disorder and disease whether it is emotional, behavioral or physical only has as much power as we allow it to have. We must never lose hope. Never lose faith. Never let it win.
Heidi Perez is a wife, mother of two and freelance writer living in South Florida. Monica Schaly, who advised on the article, is a licensed mental health counselor specializing in children and families (firstname.lastname@example.org).