Tips to build resilience when serious illness strikes the family

Here you'll find tips for supporting children – which by the way are also useful for grown-ups

 Mental Illness Study Chart (photo credit: PICPEDIA)
Mental Illness Study Chart
(photo credit: PICPEDIA)

When cancer struck my brother Jeremy, the impact on my mental health was huge – sadness about the situation, fear about the future, anxiety about his latest symptoms and test results. 

I overthank, overanalyzed and researched everything while dealing with disrupted and intense family relationships. Most people didn’t understand, know how to react or what to say. 

How could they? I felt my social bubble shrinking. I was a clinical psychologist in training with all the tools to help me through. Imagine being a child without your autonomy, cognitive understanding or emotional regulation dealing with all of that?

All these feelings are normal. Healthy children in a family impacted by chronic illness are at substantially greater risk of depression, anxiety, behavioral difficulties and poor peer relationships. Children’s relationships within their families change due to interrupted communication and contact. Extensive clinical guidance and research reinforce the importance of a whole family psychosocial approach when someone in the family gets sick 

While it’s natural to feel a range of emotions when something devastating happens within the family, the signs should not be ignored. Distressed children may become more volatile, irritable and/or withdrawn, get into more trouble at home and school, shrink away from usual social activities and struggle to concentrate. They may not show you how tough things are to avoid causing further family disruption and instead may put extra pressure on themselves to be “perfect.” Young children are prone to “magical thinking” and may feel responsible in some way for causing the illness.

Children play in the snow in Jerusalem (credit: YAAKOV KATZ)Children play in the snow in Jerusalem (credit: YAAKOV KATZ)

Tips for supporting children

  • Encourage them to share their feelings by writing them down or talking to others. Let school know what’s happening at home and that they might need a well-being check-in. Invite the kids to attend hospital appointments and ask their questions to the health team. Information and truthfulness – at an age-appropriate level – help prevent fantasizing about the cause or prognosis of the illness.
  • Stick to routines when possible like bedtimes, mealtimes, homework and school to maintain some stability when life is turbulent.
  • Practice relaxation and mindfulness. It’s important to find which works best for each individual. Simple relaxation can involve using different senses like listening to calming music or taking a scented bath.There are some excellent free mindfulness practices and apps such as Insight timer, Calm, Smiling Mind and Headspace.
  • Try a children’s progressive muscle relaxation (imagine squeezing a lemon, hunching your back like a cat, walking through squelchy mud…).For grounding when stressed and to help slow down thoughts, try noticing five things they can see, four things they can hear, three things they can touch, two things they can smell and one thing they can taste.
  • Try mantras – breathing in “I am loved/strong/calm,” breathing out “I release all tension/stress” – individualize these for you and your child, you can even make a drawing around these to help visualize the feeling.
  • Try “box breathing.” Imagine breathing in along one line of a box then hold for a second and imagine going down the side of the box. Then exhaling along the bottom of the box and holding as they travel up the box on the other side.
  • Find fun. Encourage them to keep doing the things they enjoy as much as possible. Their minds get a break from stress when doing something actively different. Try baking, arts and crafts, reading or get active – whatever sport works for them.
  • Say thank you. Try keeping a jar or gratitude journal. These can be small things – like a flower or the smell of baking. They can be “sparkle moments” – “I’m proud of myself because I was kind to my sister.” When we are worried we tend to focus on our concerns, making us feel even worse for longer. Focusing on gratitude can help break out of prolonged difficult feelings.

At Jeremy’s Circle we know the importance of social support and connection during these times – especially with people who “get you.” That’s why we work hard to ensure the children get the chance to connect with others who understand, and have fun and be kids by participating in our activities. 

The writer is a Chartered Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist BSc Hons MEd DClinPsy CPsychol AFBPsS and co-founder of the Israeli-charity Jeremy’s Circle. She works with Noa Girls in Golders Green and has a private practice in MindOf in Golders Green