Q: We have four children between the ages of 5 and 13. Our youngest son has a serious medical condition that requires the majority of our time. What can we do to make sure we're not shortchanging our other children while dealing with the burden of our youngest?
Juli: Our hearts go out to you and your son as you travel this difficult road together. Many families have gone through similar circumstances and found the stress to be profound. In fact, most children's hospitals have support groups for family members of children with prolonged or terminal illness.
In situations like yours, it's common for the child who is ill to adopt the role of "sick child." When this happens, the entire family revolves around protecting and providing for the one in the sick role. Be intentional about carving out family space that does not revolve around your youngest being ill. For example, never talk about anything related to the illness at the dinner table. Be sure that family members don't overly coddle your youngest. If he's able to do chores or get his own glass of water, let him.
As much as possible, shift doctor and hospital visits to allow one parent to be with the other children. They need time with you. Try to schedule a "date" with each child alone, even if it's just a trip to the grocery store or attending a volleyball game. Extended family members and close friends can be a big help in filling some of the gaps.
Give your other children room to process their feelings with you and/or a counselor. Siblings of a sick child feel the full range of valid emotions, including guilt, anger, jealousy, sadness and fear. Because Mom and Dad are also emotionally overwhelmed, the kids may believe they have to keep these feelings to themselves. If you see behaviors like aggression, withdrawal, extreme immaturity or trying to be a "perfect child," you should understand these are indications that a child is not processing these feelings well.
No parent would choose the circumstances you find yourselves in. However, siblings of sick children often develop extraordinary character traits like empathy, unselfishness and responsibility as a result of their unusual family dynamics.
Q: My husband has a week's vacation coming up in July. My parents are in California, his are in Ohio, and we're in Georgia. Both sets of parents are itching to see the grandkids. How do we handle this no-win situation?
Jim: At some point, most married couples have an argument over where to spend vacation time. A lot of the pressure for this decision comes from extended family members, as you know. Throw grandchildren into the mix and things can get downright ugly!
As eager as they are to see you, your parents can surely sympathize with your inability to be in two places at once. With that in mind, as you decide where to spend your husband's vacation time, it's important to remember two principles: be fair, and be flexible.
When it comes to being fair, try to come up with a solution that works for both extended families. That might mean spending summer vacation in California and Christmas in Ohio, and then switching off next year.
In terms of flexibility, consider what is in the best interests of those around you. Perhaps spending half of your husband's vacation in airports is not what your budget -- or your kids -- can handle right now. Don't be afraid to tell both sets of grandparents that it's honestly not a good idea for you to travel this year, so you'll be taking a "staycation."
Whatever you decide, make sure that you and your husband are engaged in healthy communication on the subject. Your final decision should be one that you're both comfortable with, even if you have to compromise to get there.
Dr. Juli Slattery is a licensed psychologist, co-host of Focus on the Family, author of several books, and a wife and mother of three.
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