Most parents get ill occasionally, but when that illness is serious, life-changing or terminal, it’s natural to worry about its impact on your children.
Children and young people look to their parents to provide a safe and secure home, to look after them, protect them and provide for them. When a parent falls ill and is unable to do any of those things, it can be very frightening and unsettling for them.
Children will react to the illness of a parent in different ways, depending on their age and temperament, and whether you’re likely to recover or not. Younger ones may revert to earlier behaviour, e.g. bed-wetting, while older children may withdraw or show signs of anxiety. Teenagers may not want to show it, but they are usually just as concerned.
Most children will adapt well to a parent’s illness, even if it means some changes to their own routine and activities, especially if they feel involved in what is happening.
Talking to your child
Children sense when something is wrong at home – and often overhear other adults talking. If you attempt to hide the truth, they can misunderstand and end up worrying that’s what happening is even scarier.
It’s natural to want to protect them, but if your child is old enough to understand something about the nature of illness, be honest with them, even if they are too young to take in everything.
Tell them the name of your illness and talk to them about any treatment you are receiving and your prognosis. If you need an operation, explain what will happen.
If your child seems reluctant to talk about your illness, give it time. Children are different and some may not want to talk about their feelings straightaway, or even at all.
When you have a life-threatening illness, it can be very difficult to talk to your child about the possibility of death; however, it’s important not to dismiss their questions in an attempt to reassure them. Your child will still worry, but they will be left alone to do it and will be less prepared if and when the worst happens.
Older children grasp that death is permanent and can imagine how they will feel when you are no longer around. They may seem angry with you for leaving them – these feelings are normal. Remind your child that you love them and let them share their feelings with you.
Child Bereavement UK explains children’s understanding of death at different ages.
Parental responsibilities do not disappear when someone falls ill. If your health prevents you from looking after your child and keeping them safe then you must rely on others’ help. If there is no-one who can step in to take over for as long as it takes, contact social services to ask for help.
Someone will visit your home to assess your current support needs. The assessment process focuses on what is important to you, and what you are capable of doing as well as the things you need help with.
Examples might include:
The law believes children are best cared for within their own families and you will be supported in your role as a parent.
If your illness is long-term or terminal, it is a good idea to tell your child’s school.
Children and young people have their own rights, including the right to be involved in decisions that affect them.
If your illness means you can’t do certain things without help, e.g. getting out of bed, getting dressed or cooking a meal, it’s natural to turn to your family and children for help.
Children who help their parents like this are called young carers. Your child is probably happy to help, but just be careful their caring role does not take over their life and they still have time for studying, interests and socialising with friends.
Always make sure your child knows what to do in an emergency.
Children’s charities like Barnardo’s Cymru, Action for Children and Credu Cymru support young carers in some areas.
Your local Family Information Service is there to help all parents.
Mumsnet provides support to parents in all circumstances.
Macmillan supports people with cancer to live at home for as long as possible.
Hope Again helps young people who have suffered the death of a loved one. Helpline: 0808 808 1677
Childline supports young carers. Tel: 0800 1111.