When faced with the task of disciplining a child with a severe and potentially life-threatening illness, it is understandable that most parents would balk at the thought.
We hate seeing our children sick and/or in pain and our natural instincts are likely to tell us to throw the rules out the window and give our children whatever they might want and need during this time. But the truth is, children thrive and feel safe when offered the consistency and security that rules provide.
When everything is suddenly different due to illness, keeping the rules in place means children won’t have to guess about the consequences of their actions. Remember, to discipline is to teach, not to punish.
A child who is seriously ill needs to know that some things won’t change and that their parents will continue to maintain loving boundaries to protect them and others. This doesn’t mean that rules can’t be flexible – some days you might allow dessert before dinner, or an extended bedtime – but the ones that matter, like being kind and not hurting others, ourselves, or our possessions, should remain constants.
Your children are used to depending on you to know what is acceptable and what is not. Disciplining your child shows them that you care about their well-being and their choices. By maintaining the control that you have, your children learn that this is one less thing that they must worry about.
Additionally, keeping the rules in place throughout the duration of the illness means that you won’t have to work to re-establish the rules when your child is no longer sick (source).
Some Tips for Families:
Recognize that all behaviour is communication and that most misbehaviour is a result of unmet needs – often the need for connection. Sometimes children are unable to put their feelings and needs into words, but they may show you through their play, or be willing to talk while participating in an activity together.
Decide as a family which rules are necessary and should not be broken. Establish consequences for breaking the rules.
When setting limits, do so gently but firmly, in a calm tone of voice. Remind your child the reason for the rule, such as preventing someone from getting hurt.
There are likely to be times when the child’s illness is hard on everyone, but especially on the child. Recognize that this can take a toll on your child’s mood and behaviour. Similarly, understand your child’s new limitations caused by the illness. If your child is struggling with side effects such as lack of memory, mobility, hearing, etc. take this into consideration when applying the rules.
Watch for your child’s triggers and try to intervene with support as much as possible, while increasing the child’s protective factors, such as getting enough sleep, eating regular meals, and spending ample time outside, if possible. Encourage your child to identify and label feelings as they come up, before they become too much to handle.
Focus on positivity.
Recognize your child’s strengths and notice they are behaving well. Everyone needs to be acknowledged and your child will appreciate knowing that you are paying attention to their efforts.
If challenging feelings have taken over, the first step is to support emotional regulation. Your calm and caring demeanor will support your child in regaining control of themselves. This is not the time for demanding explanations, but a time for comfort. Once your child has processed their feelings, they will be in a better emotional state to reason with you.
Follow these steps to support your child though the storm:
1. Help your child to identify their feelings and to recognize what has caused the upset. You can do this by saying something like, “You don’t feel ready to leave the park. It makes you sad and angry to have to stop playing with your friends.”
2. Acknowledge and validate the feelings. “It can be so frustrating when we have to do things we don’t want to. I’m sorry you’re feeling so upset.”
- Your child may desire affection and you could offer a hug or gentle touches along with modeling your calm emotions, slow breathing, and kind facial expressions. Support your child in “feeling the feelings” and regaining control through encouraging taking deep breaths and relaxing their body.
- Once your child’s nervous system is regulated, have a conversation about what led up to the undesirable behaviour, what feelings were involved, and discuss more appropriate ways of getting their needs met in the future.
“I understand that you were angry that we had to leave the park, but I can’t let you throw your toys. They could break or hurt someone. When you are upset, please come and talk to me and we can think of a solution together. Next time I will give you a warning before we get ready to leave so you can finish playing before we have to go.”
You may also discuss the consequence of their behaviour during this step, such as “These toys will be put away for the rest of the day today. You can try again tomorrow.”
Carry on with your day and either reintegrate your child into the activity they were engaged in prior to the outburst or encourage your child to find a new activity- especially one in which they can find success.
Note: Most of these tips can apply to siblings as well. Many parents find that they have similar struggles and concerns about disciplining their other children when one child is sick, but the comfort and security of knowing what to expect is helpful for everyone.
An Infograph on the Three R’s- Regulate, Relate, and Reason:
Written with support from Ashley Milke from the Grief & Trauma Healing Centre Inc.