I have learned that the secret of successful parenting is surprisingly simple. In one word: communication. But when it comes to telling our innocent children about sex or the pain and suffering in the world, we suddenly get tired.
I realized this for myself during a conversation that made me sick – my three-year-old son Ludo told me that his brother was still born. But on the advice of a mourning advisor, I told Ludo in as much detail about the situation as he wanted and let him ask the questions he had to do.
This was a conversation that would come to define the relationship I have with my children today. They ask me everything and have faith that I will always be honest. But what if I had the distressing task of telling them that I had cancer? I'm not sure if it would be possible to be so truthful. Yet it is a reality for around nine million British parents living with the disease.
Helen Addis, a television producer on the ITV Lorraine show, is just one. Last April, at the age of 39, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. Within a few months, surgeons had removed her right breast and then began a debilitating treatment. Her children were nine, seven and five years old at that time.
"It's better to be open": Helen Addis with daughters Belle, far left, and April, and son Archie
"We let the dust settle for a few days because I didn't want to tell it while I was emotional," remembers Helen, who lives in Surrey with her husband Mark (43).
"But when we found out it wasn't spread, we brought the news to the children individually.
"I explained everything clearly in a way that they could understand. I even compared my tumor with a verruca that had to be removed. & # 39;
The two youngest children, April and Belle, seemed to understand the news well. "April likes to tell people that her mom only has one boob – she thinks it's cool," says Helen. "She constantly asks me to show people my only boobie."
His son Archie, however, had a different, more worrying reaction. "His first question was," Is it cancer? "I didn't even know he knew what cancer was," says Helen. & # 39; Then he said, & # 39; people are dying. & # 39;
Despite her reassurance, Archie continued to look for answers. But he didn't ask his mother – instead, the nine-year-old turned to Google. "What will happen the week before my mother dies of cancer," was a mention that Helen found in the search history of the family computer.
"I was devastated," says Helen, who is now cancer free thanks to aggressive treatment. "It felt so terrible that he was looking for the signals that I only had a week to live. He was desperate that I did not abandon him. & # 39;
The two youngest children, April and Belle, seemed to understand the news well. "April likes to tell people that her mom only has one boob – she thinks it's cool," says Helen
Helen decided to pursue a new policy of absolute, total honesty. "My son is a thinker – he picks up everything, such as flowers sent to the house, or texts from friends who wish me luck in the operation. It is simply easier to be as open as possible.
"And when my cancer comes back, we'll say this is the deal now."
Deborah James, a 37-year-old mother of two who lives with stage four colon cancer, has a bleak prognosis. When the diagnosis was made, Deborah was told that there was only a 34 percent chance that she would live a whole year.
It is a devastating reality that her children are fully aware of.
"I have always been completely honest with my children from the start," says Deborah, mother of Hugo (11) and Eloise (nine).
"The tumors have spread so often that we have had to have the death interview very often."
Strangely enough, it is these moments of unfathomable darkness that seem to cause the most laughter.
She says, "I remember telling Hugo that the cancer had returned to another part of my body," she says. "He looked at me and said," Oh don't worry, you shouldn't even be alive! "
"I thought it was hilarious and we laughed out. It was fair enough – he had a point! "
The dark humor, she says, helps her deal with the most nightmare-like situations.
A wealth of psychological evidence shows that both Helen and Deborah think the approach is the healthiest.
Children of sick parents who hide their disease run a higher risk of developing psychological problems in the future, according to research published in the Journal Of Child Psychology.
"It is always preferable to be as open and honest as possible," says Emma Gleadhill, an education expert who gives psychological training sessions at 50 schools.
"Otherwise difficult feelings remain unspoken between parent and child. These are held in the body, increasing the risk of anxiety and possibly other psychological problems later in life. & # 39;
But how fair is too fair? A small army of child psychologists specializes in this subject. Here, along with advice from Helen Addis, they offer valuable tips to help parents find the right words.
Deborah James, a 37-year-old mother of two who lives with stage four colon cancer, has a bleak prognosis. When the diagnosis was made, Deborah was told that there was only a 34 percent chance that she would live a whole year (pictured with children Hugo and Eloise)
HAVE THE SPEAK AS SOON AS POSSIBLE
Helen wasted little time telling her children the truth. The sooner they knew, she thought, the better.
"We had folders carrying" breast cancer "and suddenly took free time to work – we couldn't have kept it secret in any way," she says. "I couldn't insult their intelligence."
This is the healthiest approach, says Dr. Kathryn Hollins, a child and family psychiatrist. She says: "You may be very secretive and discreet. But our children, regardless of their age, will realize that something is wrong.
"Their imagination is rich and fruitful, so they will often believe that the truth is worse than reality.
"They need a responsible, attentive adult to share the information in a realistic, hopeful way."
Even the most subtle sign of fear indicates danger, says Emma Gleadhill. "If there are changes in their routine, muted conversations and closed doors, children will form their own interpretation of what is wrong."
And don't wait until you have all the available information, says Dr. Hollins. "You never know everything. It is crucial that you open the dialogue before suspicion and fantasy arise. & # 39;
THERE IS NO SCRIPT … BUT STAY POSITIVE
My parents' world imploded – but for years I lived in a blissful ignorance of dad's cancer
Family relationship: Eva as a baby with her father Jeff
By Eve Simmons, Substitute health editor for the mail on Sunday
What will become of the children of cancer victims?
Well, I should know. My father Jeff was diagnosed as a rare form of sinus cancer when I was seven.
One night, when I was nine, an ambulance – flashing sirens and such – was called to our house.
The chemotherapy treatment he had received caused a large blood clot in his brain, which increased the risk of stroke or sudden death.
He underwent a night of invasive testing and was given drip-fed medication in the hospital before coming home with my mother, Michele, in the early hours.
Not that I had known. My brother Sam, then nine years old, and I enjoyed a great evening at a neighbor's house, playing football and yawning at takeaway pizza. These secret operations occurred regularly during Dad's six-year illness, I would later learn.
Honesty, my parents were told, was the best policy. But they did not follow this rule.
So while my mother and father's world imploded, Sam and I enjoyed a blissful early childhood. We were taken away by relatives to the coast and were happy with food packages sent by family friends.
We felt happy that our father was at home every night and enjoyed helping us with homework. We knew little that his unbridled illness prohibited him from doing much else.
Fifteen years after his death I asked my mother: why the secrets?
"We wanted to protect your youth as much as possible," she says.
"We didn't know what was going to happen and if we had told you then, you'll wait six years for your father to die."
Only when Dad lost his hair, three years after his diagnosis, did Mama mention the word cancer. And even then, as a nine-year-old, it went over my head.
Only much later, when I was 12, they were forced to explain the situation. Mama calmly explained that Dad had deteriorated and extended family gathered to help. He died in a hospice four days before my 13th birthday.
I thought I had remained relatively intact. But almost ten years later I developed an anxiety-related eating disorder. My mother thinks the two can be linked. She says: "The underlying feeling of fear turned out to have a negative effect.
"I thought you were like a pressure cooker and one day all emotions would accumulate and burst in you."
But I don't agree with that. After all, I was a frightened child, even before Dad's cancer struck. And despite the tragedy of losing him, I feel happy for a joyful and carefree childhood, filled with unconditional love.
There is no correct answer when it comes to dealing with cancer. As simple as it sounds, love is really your best defense.
There is no perfectly written script for breaking the worst kind of news. But a few keywords and phrases can minimize the impact. "First, acknowledge the age and stage of development of each child before you start the conversation," says Dr. Hollins. "Young children are often the most concerned about the direct effect on their lives, so consider exactly what the meaning is for them and what they can manage."
Helen told her three children individually, given their different ages. April, then five years old, was simply told that Mama had a "poor boobie."
"We focused on the excitement of traveling to the hospital. It seemed to work – she just wanted to know if I would be home by tea time, & she says.
For Belle, then seven, Helen told her: "Do you know that you have a verruca on your toe and if we don't put any cream on it, it will get bigger? Well, I have the same thing in my boob. Because we cannot place medicines on the inside, I have to undergo surgery. "
For older children, be prepared for difficult questions. Helen recalls: "Shortly after I was diagnosed, the BBC presenter Rachael Bland died and stood on the cover of every newspaper.
& # 39; My son asked: & # 39; What did she die of? & # 39; And I had to say: & # 39; Well, she actually died of breast cancer. & # 39; That was a very difficult time. & # 39; The advice is sober, but still positive.
Emma advises: "Talk objectively. Say things like, "Some people get surgery and take medication, and this works for most people." Conclude sentences with a positive note, focusing on things that can be done. "
Helen says, "I explained that although Mama has breast cancer, Rachael had a different type of breast cancer, for which doctors, unlike mine, couldn't give many drugs."
DON'T TURN THE "D" WORD
Given Helen's good chances of survival, death wasn't even on her radar. But what she had not realized was that her children were already starting to think the worst.
"After my diagnosis, my husband started doing odd jobs and walked around with a large DIY book under his arm," she recalls.
"April was really upset. When I asked her why, she said, "You didn't tell me you were going to die – Dad is walking around with a book called The Big Book of DIE!" She had confused DIY with dying and thought I was preparing for my death. & # 39;
Emma Gleadhill says that this is completely natural. "You cannot hide death from children. Many will know that a parent of another child has died or has had cancer, or has seen TV programs where it is mentioned. Even children's TV nowadays tackles all kinds of dark things. "
The solution? Prevent Google from filling the gaps by entering into constant "micro-conversations". "Take the opportunity to hold many mini-conversations about how they feel about new, difficult developments," says Emma.
"This allows them to ask questions and process their emotions."
Dr. Hollins proposes to introduce children to the natural life cycle of plants and animals. & # 39; You can say: & # 39; We all have our natural life cycle and isn't that extraordinary? & # 39; They are beginning to see the natural cycle of life and death. & # 39;
… BUT DO NOT MAKE FALSE PROMISES
When Archie first asked Helen if she would die, she replied: & # 39; Of course not. & # 39; Today she regrets words. "In retrospect, this was not the best thing to say, because who knows what will happen?"
According to Dr. Hollins are harmful to a child's mental health.
& # 39; Our mental health is based on trust in relationships & # 39 ;, she says. "If we cannot trust adults to talk to us honestly, it can lead to problems with abandonment or attachment."
It is for this reason that Deborah James made no promises to her children about the outcome of her colon cancer. "My children know very well that my cancer is incurable. I never promised them I won't die, ”says Deborah, who blogs about her condition under the Instagram name of Bowel Babe.
"My son even wrote about how he thinks I die."
And what about when her treatment options run out?
"I have decided that we will remain open about what is going to happen, but that we must engage a child's counselor to prepare the whole family together," she says.
A little shielding is also needed, says Emma. She advises: "Don't be too cheeky about it. Talking instead of success and failure of treatments. Recognize that it will be a difficult time, but the good thing is that the whole family is there to support each other. & # 39;
Dr. Hollins advises parents to first investigate their feelings about their own mortality. & # 39; You may need to consult a counselor beforehand to refine the story you are teaching the children and to make sure that it is wise and truthful. & # 39;
And having a circle of strong, supportive adults around them is also essential. Dr. Hollins explains: "The most important thing is that they have other adults to trust, whether it's a neighbor or uncles and aunts. Remember that you cannot do this alone. & # 39;
CANCER DOES NOT MAKE YOU A BAD PARENT
In the three years since Deborah got her diagnosis, she feels she has become a much more involved parent. "Before cancer, my career was just as important to me as being a mother. It makes me shudder to think that the first time I went to sports day was when I discovered that I had cancer.
"Now I am not always perfect, but we enjoy a lot of fun."
Helen agrees that cancer "has given me my family back." She listens more, spends more time with her children and is honest about her feelings. As a result, her children are "more compassionate and sensitive to other people."
"Sometimes my son will ask me how I feel – he is aware of my ups and downs – and will give me a cup of tea."
The stories of Helen and Deborah have once again confirmed what I already knew. It is often the conversations that you are most upset about and that test you the most.
- Follow Helen on Instagram and Twitter @thetittygritty. Visit drkathrynhollins.com for support.
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