Parenting with Chronic Illness: How Not to Overburden Your Kids

  • By Jennifer Mulder
  • 8 May 2020
  • 8 minute read
Parenting with Chronic Illness: How Not to Overburden Your Kids | The Health Sessions

All you want as a parent is for your kids to be happy and eventually become kind, responsible adults.

But then again, you also don’t want your children to have to grow up too soon. Unfortunately, being a parent with chronic illness can make your job a lot harder.

When mom or dad becomes sick and does not get better, the life of your entire family changes. Kids may have to learn how to do things independently more quickly than you would have liked to. What’s more, your son or daughter may worry about you or feel sad you can’t attend their concert or ball game.

Now there’s nothing wrong with doing chores around the house and learning taking care of each other. But as a parent who’s daily functioning is affected by chronic illness, you’ve probably found yourself worrying: What effect will my disease have on my kids? Am I putting too much weight on their small shoulders?

When a child takes on the job of looking after their parent(s) instead of the other way around, we call this parentification. There are two kinds of parentification:

  • Instrumental parentification: The kids take over many or all physical chores of the parent(s), including looking after siblings or paying the bills.
  • Emotional parentification: Children are asked to provide emotional support to a parent and listen to their (adult) problems.

This kind of role reversal disrupts the development of a secure attachment and has far-reaching effects on kids’ mental health. Parentified children may show signs of depression and anxiety, constant worrying and physical symptoms of chronic stress, like headaches and stomach pain. Even later in life, adults who were parentified as kids have an increased risk of mental health problems, substance abuse and getting involved in unhealthy relationships.

When you can’t shield your kids from the reality of living with (severe) chronic illness, what can you do to not overburden your kids? 

Every family, illness and situation is different, but here are some suggestions.

Parenting with Chronic Illness: How Not to Overburden Your Kids | The Health Sessions

6 Thoughtful Tips to Not Overburden Your Kids

1. Talk about your illness in an age-appropriate way.

When mom or dad lies sick in bed most days, it’s impossible to hide that fact from your kids. In fact, it can feel insecure for a child when they sense something bad is going on but they can’t understand why. So talking openly to your kids about your illness and the impact on your lives is fine, if you do so in an age-appropriate way. Here are some pointers:

  • Consider the timing and setting of your talk. Do you have time to talk without interruptions? Are there other major changes going on in your kids’ lives right now? There’s never a ‘right time’ to bring bad news, but the night before a test or in the middle of cooking dinner may not be the best moment for deep conversations. However, if you or your child don’t open up easily, you might feel more comfortable talking during a walk than sitting across each other.
  • Find out how much they already know or picked up on. “Maybe you’ve noticed that mom/dad hasn’t been feeling well lately.” You could also start the conversation with: “What do you know already about [your condition]?”
  • Use words they understand. That might seem like a no-brainer, but don’t use too much medical jargon. Depending on your child’s age, give simple explanations of the body, illness and treatments. Try to share information in a clear way.
  • Answer your kids’ questions – but only the question at hand. Don’t elaborate on related topics or give too much details. That will only overwhelm or worry them.
  • Watch your children’s reactions and adjust your response when necessary. Maybe you need to dose your information, or perhaps they need a hug before you continue talking.
  • Kids pick up on your energy. That doesn’t mean you have to hide your feelings. On the contrary, it’s helpful to know that mom and dad get sad, scared and frustrated sometimes too. But speaking calmly and confidently will reassure your kids that somehow your family will find a way through these tough times.
Parenting with Chronic Illness: How Not to Overburden Your Kids | The Health Sessions
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2. Let your kids help, but not take over responsibilities.

When you’re a parent with chronic illness, there’s no harm in letting your kids help around the house. In fact, it can give them a sense of confidence and independence. But there are a few simple rules to not overburden your kids:

  • Assign age-appropriate chores. If you’re unsure which tasks your kids could be in charge of, check a list of age-appropriate chores or consult your country’s child development center. Make sure their tasks can be done safely without supervision, assuming your chronic illness prevents you from stepping in quickly when needed.
  • Be clear that the kids can (and have to) help, but that the parents are ultimately responsible for running the household. There’s a difference between setting the table, vacuuming and tidying your room, and taking on adult-size responsibilities like paying rent and care taking jobs. Don’t ask your kids, intentionally or unintentionally, to fill their parent’s role. Comments like “you’re the man of the house now” or “you have to step up” can do more damage than you might think.
  • Make sure there’s enough time left to be a care-free kid. Your kid’s main focus should be on school, hobbies or unstructured playtime and their teen side job, not feeding their younger siblings.
  • Need practical help? Look for helping hands in different places. Maybe your support network can help you clean your home or drive you to medical appointments. If possible, invest in hiring help or making use of delivery services for groceries and medications. You could also buy aids like a Roomba or special kitchen utensils to enable you to do chores yourself. Finally, learn which social work, assistance programs and charity organizations could turn to for practical help or medical self-care.

3. Your kids are not your friends.

Have you ever caught yourself saying: “My son/daugher is my best friend?” Well, your children may be your favorite people, but they are your kids, not your friend.

You can talk openly with your son or daughter about your illness, but can’t confide in them the same way you would open up to friends or adult family members. Don’t overshare intimate details or vent about other family members. For example, it’s fine to let your kids know everyone is scared, sad and angry sometimes, even moms and dads. But you shouldn’t go into the details of your own fears and concerns.

If you’re in need a listening ear, support or advice, reach out to adult loved ones, patient support groups or helplines.

And also remember, those little ears hear more than you realize. So try to avoid difficult conversations when they’re in the room or possibly even when they’re awake.

Parenting with Chronic Illness: How Not to Overburden Your Kids | The Health Sessions

4. Assign your kids a confidant.

You’re not the only one who wants to protect their loved ones. Many kids don’t want to worry their already struggling parent(s), so they bottle up their feelings inside. Who can your children go to when they feel they can’t talk to you?

Maybe your son or daughter already have someone in mind that they want to turn to with their worries. If not, ask a trusted family member or close family friend if they want to be a confidant for your kids. Teens especially may need someone they can talk to when they’re scared of upsetting their parents. Make sure both your kids and their chosen confidant know they have your blessings to keep their discussions private. This is a good parenting tip for all parents, by the way, not just parents with chronic illness.

5. Watch for tell-tale signs of overburdening your kids.

If you unintentionally do overburden your kids, they’re probably the last ones to tell you so. Young kids may not even be aware of it, while teenagers may feel the weight on their shoulders but don’t want to upset their parents.

However, your child’s behavior likely will show signs they are overburdened. Maybe your son will act out or throw a tantrum when stress is high. Or perhaps your daughter starts to withdraw, fiddles with her food and lies awake at night worried.

When you notice early warning signs of depression, anxiety or stress in your kids, try to a better solution for the underlying cause. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask for help.

Parenting with Chronic Illness: How Not to Overburden Your Kids | The Health Sessions

6. Focus on what you can still do.

When you become chronically ill, suddenly there are a lot of things you can no longer do. And your kids may experience the same thing. Why can’t mom pick me up from school and drive me to ballet anymore? Why can’t we go on holiday? When will dad be able to do homework with me again?

Although you don’t have to pretend that life always has a happy ending, you can help your family focus on the things you can still do. You may not be able to cook their favorite dinner at night, but you can read bedtime stories at night. You wish you could be at their school performance too, but you’ll watch the video together afterwards and give them a proud hug then.

In that spirit, it also helps to watch your words. Explaining why things are different now makes sense, but try not to repeat all the time “No dad can’t do that, he’s too tired.

Having a more positive, problem-solving mindset may help your kids to stop worrying about the things they can’t control. What’s more, they’ll trust you that somehow, someway you’ll make it through.

Last but not least…

Even though this article focuses on how not to overburden your kids, that doesn’t mean that having a parent with chronic illness will surely have a negative effect. Growing up around someone who fights for their health every day can also make your kids more caring and sensitive, more independent, more resilient.

Do you ever worry about overburdening your kids? What do you to do prevent putting too much weight on their shoulders? 

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