By Gary McClain, MS, PhD, LMHC
Why can’t I?
Don’t you trust me?
I know how to take care of myself!
If you are the parent of a child with a chronic condition, you have probably heard this from your child a few times, if not many. Based on what my clients tell me, knowing how to respond is not easy.
All children, especially teens, want to have a measure of independence. While resolving the conflicts that arise around independence is never easy, this process can be especially challenging for parents of children with bleeding disorders. Children with a chronic condition like a bleeding disorder may be feeling frustrated about their own limitations and responsibilities, as well as guilty about how these limitations affect other family members, which may result in being that much more intent on being independent. They also struggle with being perceived as different.
Parents carry the burden of maintaining responsibility for keeping the home together with all fears and uncertainties that go along with the job. In the midst of these challenges, an elephant is wandering around. An elephant that everybody is stepping around but not talking about. Its name is “fear.”
It is only human to have lots of fears around your child’s bleeding disorder. After all, part of your job as a parent is to be aware of and actively preventing the “what ifs.” Chances are, you’ve already experienced some of them, or have come close.
Fear can keep you motivated to do everything you need to do to stay on top of your child’s care. However, fear can also cause you to hold the reins so tightly that you may risk stifling your child’s self-confidence and keep him or her from getting actively involved in their own care.
When kids with bleeding disorders aren’t encouraged to develop independence, the result is stress. First, not making your child a partner in their care leaves it all on you, and you need the help. Second, when kids feel unfairly restricted by their parents, they don’t feel normal and can rebel, placing their health at risk and causing tension at home. And third, a young adult trying to make it on their own, and who has not learned to manage their own bleeding disorder with confidence, is at great risk.
You, Your Child, and Independence: Finding the Middle Road
It’s not easy for a loving and concerned parent not to want to watch their children like a hawk. And I’m not asking you to take unnecessary risks. However, I do think there is a middle road that can keep you feeling confident your child is adequately protected, while your child can also feel more confident and in control.
Here are some suggestions to help you help your child with a bleeding disorder become more independent:
Face your own fear
It’s only human to have fears regarding your child’s health. Acknowledge your fear. Don’t judge yourself for how you feel or try to make it go away by ignoring it. This is the first step toward coping with your fear.
Encourage your child to express his/her feelings
Start the conversation by simply asking how your child is feeling and offer reassurance that you want to hear whatever it is they want to tell you - even the scary stuff. Give a few extra hugs and supportive words.
While you’re at it, let your child know how you’re feeling
Make your home a safe place to talk about emotions.
Set boundaries but offer choices
Children with bleeding disorders often feel as if they are bound by limitations, which can contribute to a sense of feeling “less” than other children. Provide your child with a sense of control by allowing for some choices in daily routines, in diet and in self-care. Explain the options and reasonable boundaries, share information, and listen to your child’s concerns and preferences. Where possible, come to decisions together. Where appropriate, bring brothers and sisters into these discussions to make them more aware of his or her perspective and to give them an opportunity to make suggestions - don’t forget that siblings have needs of their own.
Teach all children to be advocates
Children with bleeding disorders need to learn to speak up for themselves so that teachers, employers and other adults outside the home are aware of any needs and limitations. They also need to learn to deal with the questions and comments that will inevitably come their way, as do their brothers and sisters. Teach your chronically-ill child how to be a self-advocate through role-playing at home.
Consider attending camp together
Some great camping experiences are available for children living with bleeding disorders and their families. At camp, you and your children can learn from the experts on the latest knowledge and treatment of bleeding disorders. Kids can have fun with other kids who are also living with bleeding disorders, while you share experiences with other parents. Camp is also a great opportunity for kids to learn how to be more independent, even to get started on infusing themselves. Camps are held around the country. Attendance is almost always free, and even transportation may be subsidized.
Remember that not everything is a medical issue
Children are human beings, not medical conditions, and communications don’t all have to revolve around your child’s chronic condition. Many of the issues that come up with kids and teens are developmental.
Remember: The worst thing that can happen is not always the worst thing that can happen
It’s easy to get caught in the trap of “catastrophizing,” making every situation that comes up feel like an emergency. Take a step back and ask yourself: Am I looking at this through the lens of fear? Is this causing me to create the worst possible scenario that may not even be realistic? When your child pushes back on a limitation, keeping this in mind may help you realize that, well, it might just be time to relax.
Take care of yourself
Families facing a chronic condition like a bleeding disorder are constantly at risk for stress. Make sure your own needs are being met. Take care of your own physical well-being and find a safe place to talk about how you are feeling, even the bad stuff.
Parenting a child with a bleeding disorder can be challenging, but don’t let the fear factor keep you from helping your child build confidence and independence.
Take it one day at a time.
Create an atmosphere where all family members communicate with honesty and compassion.
About Gary McClain
Gary McClain, MS, Ph.D., LMHC, is a therapist, patient advocate, and author in New York City, who specializes in working with individuals diagnosed with chronic and catastrophic medical conditions, their caregivers, and professionals. He maintains a website, JustGotDiagnosed.com