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Coping With a Parent's Illness

What to Expect When a Parent is Seriously Ill


When a serious illness strikes a parent it is always confusing for the children. With a parent sick the children often don’t know where to turn for support. While the family is in this kind of turmoil the emotional needs of the kids often get lost in the upset.

For teens that confusion can be compounded by a desire to help. Teens have a greater sense of the severity of the situation than younger children. They feel a tremendous amount of pressure to help at a time when they need support and reassurance.

When a parent gets sick it shakes the entire foundation of a family and can drastically change the family’s standard of living and daily routines.

Living With a Parent’s Illness

When serious illness strikes both parents become very stressed and preoccupied. The healthy parent will be taking on the day-to-day duties of both parents and this can be physically tiring as well as emotionally draining. The healthy parent becomes like a single parent with the added strains of caring for a sick loved one.

The ill parent will be focusing on their own struggle. Their behavior will depend on how well they are coping with their diagnosis. Seriously ill people struggle with a variety of emotions. Denial, depression and fear are the most common. They may also be dealing with the physical side effects of their treatments.

Both parents may start to feel helpless. This sense of helplessness can cause severe depression and moodiness in both healthy and ill parents.

How Family Life Changes

While teens may understand the emotional unavailability of their parents the upheaval in routine living is often harder to take. The house gets messy, chores pile up, meals are made sporadically if at all, and extracurricular activities are abandoned or downsized.

Teens are often expected to pick up the slack and help out with younger siblings. They are often given more chores and family responsibility. This cuts in to their personal life at a time when the support and company of their friends is needed most.

In a family dependant on two incomes there will be financial strains. Sacrifices will be expected of everyone. This can come as a bit of a shock to the children since the family finances are usually the sole concern of the adults. Kids and teens are rarely aware of how much it takes to maintain a family and don’t fully understand the changes that have to be made.

How You Change

When a parents is seriously ill you feel grief and fear. You may feel less inclined to socialize with peers. You may even find yourself pushing close friends away and wanting to be alone. You could lose interest in recreational or school activities.

Your grades may suffer as your attention span decreases and your mind wanders to issues on the home front. Your appetite may increase or decrease and you may become lethargic. Depending on circumstances this is a time when you may become vulnerable to drug or alcohol abuse.

Some teens engage in attention seeking behavior in order to get a reaction, any reaction, out of pre-occupied parents. It is essential that you be aware of major changes in your own routine and behaviors. You may have to look for help outside the family. Your parents love you but the illness is sure to be consuming their time.

How You Can Help

You can help your parents by taking on extra work around the house. Lending a hand may even help you cope. Take responsibility for household chores or taking care of younger siblings. The idea that taking on extra chores and responsibilities can ease your stress may seem crazy but helping out your parents is actually empowering.

At a time when you may feel completely helpless, helping with daily chores can give you back a much needed sense of control over your life and the fate of your family. By doing what you can to maintain a sense of normality in the household you will find your life will feel less disrupted.

It is OK for you to take the initiative and do things without being asked. Making dinner, doing laundry, tidying up, and helping younger siblings will be appreciated even if your parents don’t seem to notice. Remember they have a lot on their plate right now. Even if they don’t pour on the praise your help in taking care of the family will be appreciated.

Be Aware of Stress

Know when your parents are in a state of high stress. Traditional high stress moments when a parent is ill would be; after a doctor’s visits, after a medical treatment, when the illness flares up or gets worse, after a fight, or when finances are at issue. Choose your timing carefully when bringing up issues but make sure to keep the lines of communication with your parents open.

It can be hard to know which parent to turn to when you need to talk but don’t assume that you should automatically go to the healthy parent. If the ill parent is the person you would have turned to in the past that doesn’t have to change. You can still turn to them. They will let you know if it’s more than they can handle. Don’t let issues build up or keep emotions bottled up.

How to Help Yourself

When a parent is ill is it is important for you to take care of yourself. While there will be changes in your life on some very fundamental levels it doesn’t mean things need to spiral out of control.

Do your best to keep your home life as normal as possible. Your parent’s illness does not have to consume every minute of your day and every second of your thoughts. You are not being a bad child by thinking of yourself at times. Maintaining your own life and your own sense of identity in the world is essential at this time.

At trying times like these you will learn who your true friends are. Don't be afraid to lean on them. If you need extra help turn to a trusted adult like a teacher, school counselor, religious leader or family member.

There are also support-groups that can help you out. You can find out about the services available in your area through a school counselor or your family doctor. Consider joining a support group as soon as you learn of your parent’s illness. No matter what, don’t be afraid to reach out for help when you are feeling scared, depressed or overwhelmed. People will be there for you.

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