“My wife was very sick with cancer when our son was 13. Now that he is a sophomore in college, he’s moody and hard to talk to. He just doesn’t act like himself. What’s going on? Could it be some kind of delayed stage of development?”
Passage on Hold
That’s exactly what it sounds like to us. A parent’s serious illness can interrupt normal development. Rebellion is a regular part of teen years—a pulling away from parents to establish independence. But this rebellion can be thwarted, and the passage from childhood to adult put on hold, when a parent faces a life-threatening illness. Teens can’t develop the sense of self and personal identity that is critical to their growth.
Bill’s sons were in their early teens when their mother became ill. It interrupted the formative process. They became sad and worried about their mom. They couldn’t focus on themselves and couldn’t go through the normal separation process. It occurred later and Bill had the same reaction—what’s going on with this lack of communication? I thought we were out of the separation phase.
During adolescence, kids are exploring their independence and developing a sense of themselves. If they don’t have the stable environment they need, they can get stuck, remaining insecure and dependent. Sometimes kids feel guilty for a parent’s illness and have difficulty understanding they are not responsible. This can further complicate their development and keep them in between what psychologist Erik Erickson refers to as Psychosocial Stage 4 – obtaining a sense of competence, and Psychosocial Stage 5—becoming independent.
It’s Okay To Be Uncertain
Kids are often pressured to be “brave” and “responsible,” expected to take on more duties or care for other members of the family. They aren’t often told that it’s okay to feel sad and uncertain. When a parent becomes seriously ill, the kids need patience, understanding and a listening ear. Be sure to watch for problems with school work, sleeping issues, withdrawal, drug use or aggressive behavior. Seek help wherever you can get it—from the school, your church or privately so that your teen feels safe and supported.
Two resources we know of can help kids who are dealing with a parent who has a major illness.
KidsKonnected (http://kidskonnected.org/) provides counseling, camps and workshops for kids who have a parent with cancer. Two books have come from this project: Love Sick, written by teens and Moxie, written to help younger kids.
Gilda’s Club (http://www.gildasclub.org/) offers quality programs and activities for kids impacted by cancer. Teens can volunteer to help in Club programs as well.
No matter what they say, kids need a stable environment for growth. A parent’s illness shakes things up. It’s important for a father to be supportive to a spouse who is ill while providing as much consistency and security as possible for a son or daughter in the midst of the turmoil. This is another tough balancing act for parents.