Developing Empathy in Kids for a Parent’s Illness

Last updated on September 13th, 2015 at 01:25 am

sick woman with cold on sofaFor reasons unknown to me, my family and various doctors consulted over the years, I get sick a lot. Sometimes for extended periods. My husband says I will catch any bug that comes within a hundred feet of me! So I’ve had various colds, strep throat, mono, shingles, and – most recently – vertigo, caused by a head cold I caught at the end of May. With all these illness, and especially ones where I don’t “look” sick, I’ve noticed my son isn’t  showing much empathy for my situation, which has become both aggravating and concerning.

Why does it matter? Empathy – the ability to understand and relate to another person’s experience – is an important “emotional intelligence” skill, and emotional intelligence (often noted as EQ) has been shown to be as or more important than intelligence for future academic and professional success, as well as personal happiness. In this vein, empathy for bouts of illness could help children throughout their lives, both personally and professionally. At work it could help them be better coworkers and managers (as I remember a boss who told me over the phone, “You don’t sound sick,” when I was suffering from mononucleosis due to overwork). Personally, it could help them in their relationships with their spouse and family – to be more supportive during illness. Additionally, a healthy respect for illness and the impact it has on people might also help in caring for and supporting themselves, giving themselves space and time to recover and looking after themselves in the first place in order to avoid illness.
And, of course, empathy from the kids really helps make things easier on the parent who is sick!

My recent issue with vertigo started out with severe and scary symptoms of the whole world spinning and me falling and flailing within it. While these symptoms only lasted about a week – the condition persisted to a lesser degree for a couple more months, causing mild dizzy spells, difficulty concentrating, severe fatigue and occasional headaches. It really prevented me from doing my usual activities, including a full work schedule, driving, home chores, and social activities.

Initially my son was not very empathetic about the vertigo, probably partly because it is such a rare/odd condition – and I didn’t LOOK sick. He suggested I was being overly “dramatic” as I was falling and flailing and occasionally made some slightly rude comments of the “drama queen” “always sick” variety. Plus he kept demanding my time and attention when I really just couldn’t give it.

This started to make be both concerned and angry, as I was going through enough without having to deal with a 12-year-old’s world-view, so I started a concerted “empathy-development” program with Elliott – with some success. Here’s what worked for me:

  • I highlighted the negative behavior and his specific comments (and tone) – and how they made me feel
  • I explained what was happening to me (simply), including how my brain was affected by getting different signals about where my body was – I tried to give him an explanation of why I was acting and feeling this way
  • I talked about how it felt to have this condition and to be ill “again” – and what I felt I was missing out on – and answered his questions about the condition / situation
  • I also described what good would look like (e.g. “Asking how I’m feeling, checking on my symptoms” or “making me tea when I’m tired”)
  • Asking for help from my husband (could also be a friend / family member) to reinforce the message about my illness and what support I need
  • Although these steps had some positive results, I still had to remind him regularly that I still had this issue – as he would forget or just assume I was better at some point

After trying these approaches, Elliott’s comments became a lot more positive – and he even made me a nice tea tray in bed. The situation’s not perfect – but it’s better. At least he is now aware of his behavior and making an effort: the other day I made a comment about his earlier negative actions and he said, “That was then, I’m not doing that anymore, right?” Even if he’s not perfect, I’m just pleased that he recognizes his earlier behavior wasn’t ideal.

About the Author

Audra is an experienced pharmaceutical marketing professional, aspiring writer, and mother of Elliott, a high-spirited fourteen-year old boy. Frequently tired but never bored, she has a strong interest in public health fostered by numerous years implementing global diabetes education programs as well as by her fourteen-year crazy (wild? amazing?) adventure in parenting. She recently earned a Masters in Public Health to augment her expertise in health policy and health promotion. Audra is a member of the PedSafe Team

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