During and after both of my pregnancies I made sure to carve out plenty of time to connect with each child. It could be a long walk, a swim together, or reading a book. Whatever the activity, it’s quite natural and essential to seek out unfettered moments with your child. It allows the child to experience the necessary comfort and care by the parent, and is essential to fostering that healthy sense of trust in the parental relationship as a whole. While these are vital to the healthy dynamic between the parent and the child, our instinctive nature as humans is actually to be slightly on guard at all times. This can make relaxation and connectivity with our children and ourselves feel more deliberate than visceral at times. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Boston-based psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk explains that in order to feel emotionally close to another human being, our defensive system must temporarily shut down. Meaning, in order to play, mate, or nurture our children we must turn off our brain’s natural vigilance. This can prove challenging, especially during times of stress, but we know it’s necessary in order to enjoy all of life’s ordinary pleasures.
Recently, a dear school friend was diagnosed with Leukemia. Two years earlier we were in our last semester of graduate school when Amy learned that she and her husband were expecting their first child. I remember the intense pressures of that semester and how her beautiful demonstrations of care as parent had already begun to kick in. She was just months into her pregnancy when she proclaimed that she would not allow the academic stressors negatively affect her or the health of her child. In the midst of research and deadlines, Amy made the decision to drive away her fears and seize the happiness of the moment. Moral philosopher Sisella Bok said, “When we drive away all that excites us and frightens us, there ensues an unbroken tranquility and enduring freedom…” Amy understood in that moment she needed to be attentive to her child and herself. It’s this constant affection as parents that provide children with a sense of inner certainty as well as outer predictability that we will be there when they need us.
Like Amy, news or sense of a parent’s illness can be frightening to a child. However, when we are attentive to a child’s ability to understand their self and others around them we allow the child to become richer with each new experience. Certified Child Life Specialist (CCLS) and Sunkissed Families Contributor Teresa McGinley explains that sometimes telling your child difficult information can seem overwhelming because you are giving them a window in the adult world. It can seem like you are taking away a piece of their innocence by sharing upsetting or challenging news, but honesty and disclosures are central to maintaining their healthy sense of trust in you.
McGinley explains that delivering difficult news regarding the health of a family member does not have to be a standard process or even a sit down conversation. Children learn best through play and demonstration. By delivering information in a non-threatening manner children can develop a healthy understanding of the situation and feel empowered to help. This type of support, even during these periods of sadness, can provide children with a sense of control that allows them to become a meaningful part of the process.
As with our friend Amy’s illness, we can teach children about Leukemia and how it impacts the body. Does this concept sound difficult? Well then parents, let’s lighten up this somber moment and teach your child how to make blood soup! Sound a little gruesome? It’s actually an effective activity commonly used by child life specialists that allows the child to visually observe the difference between “healthy blood” and “blood with leukemia.”
FOR MATERIALS YOU’LL NEED:
Red Hots® Candies: represent red blood cells
Peach rings candies: represent platelets
Clear hand soap (or hand sanitizer): represents plasma
Lifesavers® (white): represent white blood cells
Tic-Tacs® candies (white): represent leukemia/sick cells
2 Ziploc® bags (half gallon size)
A good way to transition into this activity is to talk about the body.
Talking about the differences between the 2 bags can lead into a discussion about what it means when the blood has Leukemia and what type of symptoms someone who has Leukemia might experience.
You can steer the conversation in whichever direction you feel is best for your child.
Sissela Bok explains, “We become who we are in part by how we respond to shifting circumstances against which our lives delineate themselves.” For sure, illness of a parent is not an easy topic. Parents may be concerned with how much information is healthy for the child to know. However, like adults, children are also naturally on guard and can sense if something isn’t quite right. Parents can help mitigate those alarm bells in children by taking time to relax and to be emotionally available to answer any questions they may have. A great deal of children’s learning is actually self-motivated and self-directed. Therefore, by keeping these lines of communication open children will be able to ask any questions that sit at the forefront of their mind. Answering in an honest, age-appropriate manner can help foster their sense of empathy and will help them to feel comforted and supported. It can also help children to reconcile their concerns and provide them with peace and harmony of the soul so they can continue to enjoy life’s ordinary pleasures.
When parents regularly embrace life’s ordinary pleasures, and express an optimistic view, children are more likely to follow suit.
Ordinarius voluptatibus vitae embrace!
Embrace life’s ordinary pleasures!
Jeannine Marie Lenehan (CDS) & Teresa McGinley (CDS, CCLS)
This article is dedicated to our wonderful Tufts University cohort Amy Crowley (A’15) and all parents who understand the importance of teaching children to embrace life’s ordinary pleasures ~ especially during life’s more challenging periods.