Parent-Child Communication Over Time
Last updated: January 2019
When I received my diagnosis of Stage IV Lung Cancer, my child was eight years old. My wife, who has professional experience with early childhood development, suggested that we tell her what she needed to know in order to understand what was going on, but that we avoid extraneous details that might be frightening or impossible to process. I felt that it was important to be honest as much as possible, but also that we needed to demystify the words we used in order to avoid later issues with stigma or fear.
Telling my eight year old
We pre-emptively sent a note to the parents of her classmates, asking them to be sensitive to the fact that I might be going through some drastic physical changes that would make the topic of cancer impossible to avoid. The note requested that they avoid loading the topic with stigma when they discussed it with their own children, but we still had to contend with the fallout of kids who parroted their parents' limited experiences and unfiltered stories. It only took a few days for stories to come home about dying uncles or aunts, providing us with a need to explore new language.
But I was admittedly lucky with my family. We always made a point of being open with each other about how we were feeling or what was going on. My child knew she could ask questions of us and, at eight, she was still thankfully lacking much of the self-consciousness that prevents kids from speaking up as they get older.
Retaining a level of optimism
That was four years ago. We were able to avoid a lot of the emotional instability that a child might get from being thrust into the world of a parent's cancer treatment. It helped, no doubt, that I was able to handle chemotherapy fairly well, and that we always framed my treatment as a means of getting better -- never did we suggest that I might die from this disease. Rather, we talked often about the progress that had been made in medical science, allowing me more treatment options. The challenge to focus on was living the best life possible, not merely trying to stay alive.
Everything was centered around retaining a level of optimism with regard to my disease, and in many respects, that may have helped my own treatment. It encouraged me to take the time to create new adventures with my child even when I was in the middle of a chemo cycle, pushing myself to feel healthier by acting healthier. But in the ensuing years, I have been watched by those young eyes as I have endured waves of change.
Adapting to change
For a long time, I was stable. Things became their own version of normal in our family -- Daddy was going to feel sick on these days, but he would be extra peppy on these other days... In more recent months, however, there have been more ups and downs than I care to remember. And they have been far more visceral than what any of us had been used to.
Now, I am talking to a twelve-year-old. A tween who is on the verge, apparently, of adulthood. I find myself constantly checking in, offering reminders that it is okay to ask me questions, that it is okay to be concerned or even worried, but that talking to me about it is essential. And yet my child internalizes more, remains more stoic than ever before, but also responds more vociferously to small infractions in the social fabric of our home.
This is a very different time and communication becomes more important than ever before. It is a critical time for me to appear strong, to offer protection from an ever-widening world, and yet many days I have never felt weaker or more tired. Navigating our new relationship -- for it truly is new -- requires adjusting our whole framework. But it is coming together, with work on both sides. Because my child, just as I do, truly does want to understand.
Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.
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