We talk a lot about how we can help medically ill adults cope with disease. There is a lot to address: Dealing with doctors within a complex medical system, getting support and finding people who can listen, and coping with fear and disability. These are just a fraction of the issues.
The experience of children of medically ill parents is rarely discussed. Illness and disability among parents does not seem to be linked to adversity in children. At least, I have found no compelling data that suggests that children of parents struggling with a physical illness are more affected than other kids, when illness is the sole variable. Still, parents with medical illnesses often worry about how to provide the best environment for their children.
I saw a movie recently that made me reflect on the issues of children with medically ill parents. In Beasts of the Southern Wild (which is nominated for Best Picture and Best Actress for the 2013 Academy Awards), a young girl suffers trauma to an enormous degree. Like all children exposed to a traumatic childhood, Hushpuppy, a 6-year-old girl, is ambivalently, but supremely dedicated to her neglectful and abusive father. Hushpuppy’s father, Wink, develops a fatal illness in the course of several other chaotic events in the film. One scene in the movie captures the confusion that children can feel when a parent is severely ill. Hushpuppy, who has watched her father suffer from a mysterious disease and not acknowledge the reality of his ailment, confronts her father during an argument:
Hushpuppy: “You going to be dead?”
Hushpuppy: “You going to leave me alone?”
Wink: “No, I ain’t going to leave you alone!”
Hushpuppy: “Cause, if you be gone, I be gone too.”
Wink: “No, that’s not how it works!”
Hushpuppy: “Sometimes, in the bed, I start to shake and I can’t stop. I got what you got.”
Wink: “No, that’s a side effect of you being a stupid little girl!”
Hushpuppy: “Are you going to be dead?”
Wink: “No! You’ll probably live 100 years more.” Wink then encourages Hushpuppy to show off her “guns,” her over-developed biceps.
It is rare that a film can capture, in such a concrete way, dynamics between parents and children that often go unspoken, and are often unconscious. Wink is in denial about his illness. This is a family that is caught up in survival. No one can be trusted and the way to endure is to focus on strength.
I have seen this dynamic many times, though fortunately, in a less obvious form. Children with medically ill parents can be very resilient. However, since kids often identify with parents, it is common that children with sick parents can get confused. It may seem irrational to us grown-ups, but if a parent is ill, a child can worry that their body is malfunctioning in the same way as their caretaker’s. When parents are in denial about bodily failures, kids become puzzled and the one answer a child’s mind can come up with is that the parent and the child are experiencing the same bodily experience.
Normal kids experience adverse events. When parents are ill, discussions need to take place about reality, but at a developmental level that is appropriate. Parents should be wary of providing too much information. Providing no information, however, risks a great deal of confusion.