Coping, social relations, and communication: a qualitative exploratory study of children of parents with cancer

Mikael Thastum, Mikael Birkelund Johansen, Lotte Gubba, Louise Berg Olesen, Georg Romer
Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry 2008, 13 (1): 123-38
The purpose of this qualitative study of families where a parent has cancer was to explore ways of informing the child of the parent's illness, how the child perceives the parent's emotional state, how the child copes with the parent's illness, and how this coping relates to the parent's coping and concerns for the child. Twenty-one children from 15 families and their parents were interviewed. In 13 families the mother was ill, in two the father. Children were aware of the facts of the illness, but there was limited emotional communication between the generations. The children were very observant of both the ill and the healthy parent's emotional condition. The children's observations and expressions led us to identify five coping strategies the younger generation used: Helping others, parentification, distraction, keeping it in the head, and wishful thinking. Both adaptive and destructive examples of parentification were found. Communication patterns and parental coping seemed to be highly related to the child's coping repertoire. Even though most children seemed to manage rather well, all children were strongly affected by the illness. The 'healthiest' adaptation related to factors within the family system, which has implications for the provision of help.

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