Children have overactive imaginations. If you don’t talk about this situation you’re your child then they will provide their own answers, which will probably be wrong. They will know something isn’t right. Often, as adults, we are humbled by the strength, courage and dignity with which a child handles a situation. Use simple language, working on the premise that less is more. If your child is young, avoid words such as benign, malignant, therapies, cancer. It is important to let them know that they can talk about the illness (whether it is theirs, or yours) at any time. The child needs to know that they will not be abandoned and that you will be there for them. Tell them that you too have moments when you are frightened, angry, lost but that these moments pass, particularly when you can tell someone how you feel. Be truthful, but optimistic and sensitive.
Don’t be upset if your child chooses another person to be their confidante. Children have an innate need to protect those they love and they may feel that it is less of a burden for you. Just let them know that you are happy to chat – whenever.
The bottom line is that, as a family, you have a shared history together. It may not seem like it initially; you will all feel that you are treading on eggshells and that the bonds you had have gone forever. They haven’t – they are just finding a new groove. You are in different places now, but the shakedown period will pass. As time goes on the weft and warp will be rewoven and you will emerge as a stronger unit. Routines are important and one meal a day together is crucial - this could be breakfast. It maybe that there needs to be a new division of labour as parents are dividing time between hospital and home, and possibly work. There needs to be a shared understanding about what is needed and family members must feel able to ask for help. Yes, there will be anger but by raising the tolerance levels this can pass.
Brothers and sisters may be coping with strong and conflicting feelings. They may feel guilty, feeling perhaps that they may be in some way responsible for their sibling’s illness. They may also feel jealous about the attention that is being given. Be sensitive, but firm. More than ever they need love and need to know what the boundaries are.
Anxieties will be two way: the teacher will need to know what the limits are about what to expect and your child will be anxious about slotting back into the routine, the friendships and work.
Ideally the teacher and school will have kept in touch during the child’s absence, as will have friends. This makes the transition from home to school. It is important that you have a conversation with the teacher about exactly how much your child knows about their illness.
These are things to consider:
For the teacher:
Don’t be surprised by some parents’ reactions. You will be astounded at how supportive they can be; equally there will be some parents who don’t know what to say or how to react. And at the far end of the continuum there will be parents who, through ignorance, unintentionally cause hurt. For example, they may tell their own child that they should no longer play with your child for a variety of reasons. Concentrate on the critical mass – those parents whom you know you can talk to and who will give in return. Often adults will be looking to you to give the lead. Help them out. Let them know that it is OK to talk about your child, or if you are having a bad day, that you would prefer to be on your own. Sometimes practical things speak volumes, so leaving a cake on the doorstep, or having a brother or sister over for a sleepover.