Effects of Childhood Cancer on Parents’ Relationship

Parents who are dealing with caring for a Child with Cancer undergo huge amounts of stress, and generally experience both positive and negative changes in their relationships, communication, stress, and their roles.

Emotions run the gamut; anger, anxiety, guilt, and distress will all ebb and flow during the course of the child’s illness. Childhood cancer is a family affair, and while these emotions will generally all be expressed at one time or another by all family members, expression is generally more overt from mothers and children.

Childhood Cancer affects the family’s needs in a myriad of ways such as self-esteem, social interaction, their need for care, and general functioning. This may cause the parents to have to change or modify their family roles to cope with the demands of their child’s illness.

The ways in which having a Child with Cancer affects the fathers’ and mothers’ relationships vary from family to family; in some cases the stress of coping with the disease will weaken the relationship while in others the cancer experience strengthens the relationship.

According to extensive research with parents of children diagnosed with cancer, time since diagnosis is an important factor in the couple’s relationship:

  • Many of the changes occur shortly after diagnosis;
  • When the child has been ill for 1 year, there were fewer changes in parents’ relationships;
  • After 2 or 3 years, many couples experience positive changes;
  • After 4 years or more, most parents note little to no additional changes;
  • During times of remission, family life generally returns to normal, and there is a sense of a strengthened relationship between the parents;
  • Should the child’s cancer relapse however, the entire crisis process can be re-established, and this can either lead to a greater emotional closeness or magnify strengths and weaknesses of the marriage.

Childhood Cancer calls for parents to invest, at least for a time, the majority of their physical and emotional energy in their child’s illness. This can leave minimal time for intimacy and leisure activities, and high stress factors can lead to negative changes in couples’ intimate relationships. The mother, who is generally the main caregiver, could begin to feel that the adverse and stressful circumstances generated by their child’s cancer are weakening the connection with their partner.

Each spouse deals with their sick child in his or her own way and may sometimes feel that they cannot meet the other parent’s needs. This can also lead to difficulties in communication, conflicts, and lack of alignment between parents that could interfere with providing optimal care for their child with cancer.

Mothers may expect fathers to help when they feel overwhelmed with caring for their Child with Cancer as well as managing the daily family routine and their own jobs, as well. Many mothers end up having to give up their jobs in order to care for their child, and although this may give them more time to spend with their ill child, it also adds more physical, emotional and financial stress.

Fathers on the other hand may feel burdened by their jobs and may want or need to just relax quietly at home after work. Fathers may also find it difficult to acknowledge their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and may repress their fear and inner conflict because that is what they perceive society requires of them. Unfortunately this may also lead to them “being strong” for their wives, and not sharing their feelings with them, which could lead to schisms developing in the marriage relationship.

Mothers may find that during their child’s illness, their role as wife may be totally replaced by the caregiver role. Fathers who were not normally directly involved in household tasks before may have to start assuming these roles, even if they have a full-time job.  In times of crisis, mothers generally focus on involvement in the child’s life by being physically present, while fathers advocate for and support their children and their wife.

It is vital that both parents are comfortable and flexible in dealing with these role changes by emphasising the importance of working together in a partnership, as a team, independently of how roles are shared.  Conflicting needs of both spouses must be reconciled through communication and negotiation, as they are both equally valid and heartfelt.

It is important that both partners remain emotionally available for each other, whether separated or together; both parents will suffer when they do not have the other’s emotional support, but their bond is strengthened when they share their feelings.

If you are a parent of a Child with Cancer and notice that there are stresses and tensions that seem to be splitting you and your partner, you should seek professional assistance – your child’s oncology team can usually provide you with some form of assistance or at least a referral to a counsellor.

Source: Effects of Childhood Cancer on Parents’ Relationship

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