To say that I have the best children in the entire world is an understatement. Because I do. I think most parents have moments of clarity where we recognize that our children are incredible human beings, becoming who they are meant to be right before our eyes. You know, between the sleepless nights of babyhood and the intensity of preteen emotions.
And even throughout the (short) lives of our two younglings, I can validate that they have experienced some of the hardships that come along with having a parent who is struggling with illness…and being young caregivers. I really believe that it’s important to name the parts of who we are – they may be “just parts” of who we are, but together – they shape the person we are today, and who we become tomorrow. So, they are both indeed child caregivers.
For me, parenting in this strange, in between generation is difficult. My generation is sandwiched between “woke” parenting and “nope” parenting. I grew up in the “nope” parenting era – and it’s hard to do things differently than my parents did. While the love and desire to nurture is the same, the parenting style has to change because the world around us has changed since the 80s and 90s.
And in the midst of all of this “woke” parenting…I am feeling a lot of serious and painful parenting guilt. We are trying to raise wonderful, kind, intelligent, self-sufficient people – and a lot of the time, I’m not modeling any of those characteristics or behaviors. Sometimes my head is barely above water. And every parenting expert on Instagram has something to say about gentle parenting or how to help our children modulate/regulate emotions, overstimulation, under stimulation, etc. It’s too complicated. I need simple instructions on how to be better. Because I am so so worried that the toll childhood caregiving will take/has taken could result in a negative outcome for these amazing humans we call ours.
In the 15 years that I have been a caregiver, I’ve been fortunate enough to find online support groups where healthy dialogue between the members has helped me find simple ways to keep us all grounded – and connected. I hope that these tips are helping us mitigate some of the burden our children endure – and I hope they could help you too if you’re struggling with these same (similar) issues.
- Answer questions honestly, and don’t answer questions that haven’t been asked. It’s easy to overshare. I prefer to take a conservative approach when it comes to answering complicated questions about caregiving – or any challenging topic, really. Sometimes, leading our children to share their own understanding of the topic they are asking questions about can help us as parents frame an answer that is age – and emotionally – appropriate. Not every child is ready to hear everything at the same time. Some kids are late bloomers, while others are ready now.
- Offer the opportunity to speak with a professional or other trusted adult. Our kids both know that if they are having a bad day at school, that they have our permission and blessing to share their struggles with the guidance counselors at their schools. They also know that they can share their grief or concerns with our parish priest. And lastly, they also know that there are trusted adults outside of our home (this includes grandparents, aunts/uncles/and especially amazing cousins) /school/church who specialize in helping people process emotions. They know that if if they want to speak to a therapist, we’ll make it happen for them. I want them to know that there are many support networks they can tap into and that while we’re always here to listen and help, growing up as a child caregiver is hard and support can (and should) come from different places.
- Designate a specific time each day for open dialogue as a family. For us, that’s dinner time. We rarely, if ever, eat separately. Dinner is never long – but this time is precious. We’ve had serious discussions at the dinner table, but also hilarious bouts of uncontrollable giggling. This is sacred time for us to connect, to ask leading questions about feelings, and to remind each other of the good things that happened throughout the day. Our daughter always asks at the dinner table, “so, does anyone have a question of the day?” – it’s a tradition.
- Assign caregiving tasks that make sense for your child’s “age.” Caregiving is a family affair and we all participate in our own way. Like any other household task, as a caregiver, I’m going to ask for help if I need it – and our kids have always been helpers. When assigning tasks, consider your child’s emotional age, as well as their actual age. Some tasks may not be a good fit for your child. Eg. Kids with poor fine motor skills may not be a good fit for helping to feed. Younger children may not be strong enough to maneuver a wheelchair. But we can all do something – and kindness and empathy are skills that are refined in these moments.
- Thank your children. Like household tasks, caregiving tasks need to get done…and many hands make the work light. Where a household task may not harm someone, a caregiving task is directly connected to the personal wellbeing of another. Whether that person is a grandparent, parent, or sibling – your child is helping to care for another human being. That is AWESOME work – it’s AWE inspiring, Godly work…and we need to recognize this and demonstrate our appreciation. Am I suggesting a pom-pom/cheer moment every time they help? No. But I am suggesting a genuine “thank you for…name the thing they did and what it means to you” and a hug or kiss (or both!). Bonus: I’m always greeted with a doubly tight hug back and wet kisses when I’m thanking my two darlings for all they do as child caregivers.
Hindsight is 20/20 – which is a round about way of saying that I can’t look into the future to correct the mistakes I’m making now. I hope that our children felt like we tried our best to love them and guide them through a trickier than usual path.