Are kids really that resilient when a parent has been poorly?
Updated: Oct 15, 2018
This is a question that I often thought about whilst I was going through treatment for breast cancer. My daughter was only 4 years old when I was diagnosed and she had just started Primary School.
As if starting school wasn't challenging enough but also learning that your mum would be poorly and would have to witness her change her appearance in order to get better.
I guess this question or something of this sort has crossed the minds of parents coping with a serious illness and there is no right or wrong answer as each child has their own personality and coping mechanisms.
My daughter Nevaeh is very strong minded and exhaustingly independent which we knew from when she first started to walk and talk. This certainly shone through during the 9 months whilst I was poorly and even more so now.
I want to share how we as parents helped guide Nevaeh through this difficult time and also how Nevaeh dealt with or didn't deal with certain situations.
When my surgeon gave me the devastating news that the lumps in my breast were cancerous, the first words that came out of my mouth was "I have a daughter". She was the first thing that went through my mind.
I knew that we had to tell her but how and when is the best time to tell her? How much do we disclose, she was only 4 years old.
We decided we would tell her once we picked her up from school. We would tell her but disguise the full diagnosis and make it easier for her to come to terms with it. We took her for some food (food is her weakness and sweets) and I told her that I had a poorly booby and the doctors would be giving me a special potion to make my poorly booby better. I also explained mummy would also lose her hair because of the special potion.
She seemed to understand to an extent and didn't really ask many questions at this stage.
C word (not that c word)
To this day Nevaeh has not heard the word 'Cancer'. From the get go I never wanted her to know the word or what it meant because if kids at her school talked about it and she associated it with me, it could of had more of an impact on her mentally. I guess it's normal for us to think of the word cancer as death. It's the naiveness that comes with youngsters and also adults who have never experienced cancer in the family.
I wanted Nevaeh to just know I had a poorly lump and the doctors were going to make me better.
Kids can be cruel sometimes and in a lot of cases it's not through trying, it's just because they have no filters and tell it how it is.
When my hair was falling out and I braved the shave, Nevaeh asked if we could shave our dog and stick the fur to my head. Yes, kids say it how they see it!
I will be honest, Nevaeh did tell me off on a few occasions because I went out without a wig or hat on and didn't want people staring at me. That was Nevaeh showing her protective side which she also presented when we were out shopping because if people stared at me she would tell them off and say "don't you know it's rude to stare". Although she made a joke about my bald head (calling it mummy's baldy), it did have an effect on how she saw me because she was worried about what people thought of me. This is a normal human reaction to this situation but it has set a precedence now as she is overly obsessed with her hair and also mine.
I have invited Nevaeh along with me when I get my hair cut or styled and also let her help me with my hair which I believe helps her cope with the past.
This was very tough on Nevaeh and also my husband.
On a few occasions I needed to be admitted to hospital due to being neutopenic after a chemo treatment (no white blood cells to fight infection). The longest I was in for was 4 days and one of the hospital stays was on Nevaeh and my husbands birthdays. I was not there to celebrate with them in the morning which tore me apart.
Everyday they would come visit me in isolation but they wasn't allowed near me and could only visit for an hour a day. Every time Nevaeh would look back and start crying when she would leave me in hospital.
She is a very sensitive soul and unfortunately Nevaeh doesn't really have grandparents up in the North and she has always just had me and my husband along with our close friends. I have never spent time away from Nevaeh apart from my hen do, so we are all she knows. I think children who have a huge family support network could possibly cope a little better with this situation because they are used to being with other members of the family and have another connection apart from just their parents and friends. Seeing their mum or dad in hospital will never be a pleasant experience we just have to reassure them and make them feel safe.
I would just tell Nevaeh that the doctors are making sure mummy doesn't get too poorly.
On the plus side, Nevaeh would make the hour she visited worth while. She would dance around with bed pans on her head and make me giggle with the silly things she says. She would also put her sadness to one side whilst she was there to make me happy. Now that is a warrior in my eyes!
Seeing mummy poorly
Chemo treatment made me sick and sometimes I would vomit but Nevaeh would come see me upstairs and rub my back or get me towels and flannels when I was too hot. She has a very caring nature and kids like to know they are helping.
This experience has now made me more cautious if I am poorly with a bug etc as now I will hide it as much as possible because I don't want her to revert back to when I was having treatment and throwing up. I am probably being over cautious with this but it's how I want to help shield Nevaeh from any more hurt.
Why are you crying mummy?
I have always been quite hard faced and not much of a cryer but going through this journey, I have cried so many tears (in secret).
Nevaeh rarely saw me cry as I wanted to show her positivity and strength but also if I did cry, I wanted her to see it's ok to show emotion.
On the rare occasion she saw me cry, she would comfort me and always ask "is it your booby mummy?" I would always be truthful where necessary but I do think Nevaeh seeing me poorly has had an effect on her emotionally. She has never received any therapy as I don't believe she has needed it but it has certainly made her a stronger little girl.
As mentioned above, being bald did have an effect on Nevaeh but something I never wanted to hide from her was the fact I had a mastectomy. It's completely up to the parents whether they decide to disclose any physical changes etc to their kids and they will know what's best but I wanted Nevaeh to know my poorly booby was gone which would in turn make mummy better. I wanted this to be a starting point for Nevaeh to start believing her mummy was getting better.
When I had the mastectomy I didn't have the reconstruction straight away. After my initial surgery I didn't want Nevaeh to see it because of the bruising etc but I did eventually let her see it about 2 weeks after. She actually became very inquisitive so I let her see it. Her reaction amazed me, in fact her no reaction amazed me. She was not bothered one little bit and I honestly believe it's because I was honest with her and didn't make much of a big deal about it.
Nevaeh would ask on occasions "when are you getting your booby back?" and I would say the doctors will be giving me a new one soon. Obviously each child will deal with the physical appearance side of things differently but parents can assess whether it's appropriate or not.
It's very important to try keep life as normal as possible. I continued to take Nevaeh to the park, days out (when I was well enough) and just treat her like any normal 4/5 year old. Yes, sometimes I did need Nevaeh to be a little self sufficient like shower and daily routine stuff as I just did not have the energy to do the best job on occasions. She liked this because as mentioned previously, she is exhaustingly independent.
We did over compensate in certain areas like giving in more often and feeling like bad parents when telling her off but this is all part of being a parent isn't it?
Nevaeh went to school everyday and continued to excel even whilst having the worry of her mummy being poorly. We did sit down with the head teacher before I started treatment to give the school a heads up just in case Nevaeh started to rebel (to be expected). From my experience, I would recommend speaking with the children's school/nursery because they can be that extra support and as they spend a lot of time with your child, they can identify any potential issues.
When I started treatment I said to Nevaeh that when mummy is all better, we will go on holiday.
We kept that promise to Nevaeh and flew to Cyprus a couple months after I got the all clear. This was the beginning of our new start and Nevaeh trusting mummy was ok.
Now I have had the reconstruction and had a breast made, it's just another step for Nevaeh to see how much I have improved and living our best life.
Are kids really that resilient? I guess it depends on how you present the situation to them, the support network around you, the outcome of treatment and also the child's own strength and personality.
It's not a clear cut answer because I was one of those parents who thought kids are always resilient and from going though this, I have learnt it's the journey you take your kids on that shows a child's resilience and in turn helps mold them to become the amazing little terrors we love and adore.