Parenting in today’s world is not an easy task. It takes a great deal of time and attention to raise healthy, well-adjusted children – a challenge for any parent. And that challenge becomes even more significant when you are also faced with a chronic illness such as Parkinson’s, one that is already both physically and emotionally draining. But since Parkinson’s can affect any age group, many of us find ourselves still very much involved in parenting when we receive our diagnosis. Here are a few caveats to keep in mind when reflecting on how to approach this challenging situation.
(1) Take care of yourself. As much as this thought may conflict with your belief in putting your children first, it is extremely important to practice self-care. If you don’t maintain your physical and emotional health, you will be less equipped to handle the challenges of parenting.
(2) Evaluate your definition of a “good parent”. As I mentioned, the goal of parenting in my opinion is to nurture and raise healthy, well-adjusted, independent children that will go on to be productive adults guided by a strong moral compass. If you are able to do so, then that to me is successful parenting. And that process does not necessarily depend on your physical capabilities.
(3) Use your life experience with chronic illness as a teaching opportunity – not just about the disease and how the body works, but life lessons. Having someone so close with a chronic illness like Parkinson’s is highly impactful. By witnessing your life experience, children can learn not only compassion and empathy but also the values of perseverance and inner strength.
(4) Model for your children. Regardless of the life stressor, children of any age often look to their parents before deciding how to react to a given situation. Think of the toddler who looks to his parent when he falls. Whether he cries or picks himself up and wanders off depends very much on how distraught his parent is. In the same way if you take an optimistic approach to your disease, convey hope for the future, your children will more than likely adopt a healthier outlook instead of a fearful one.
(5) At the same time it is important to express some of your emotions regarding your illness. Although no parent wants to burden their children with all the details of how this disease impacts us, it is important to share some of our emotions. We like to remain invincible in the eyes of our children but it’s also good to show them that it’s normal to get frustrated, discouraged or upset by the obstacles that you face with Parkinson’s. The valuable life lesson comes from how you deal with those emotions and modeling productive coping methods is an important skill for them to witness and learn.
(6) Change your expectations and adapt to new life circumstances. Truth be told, our bodies are changing. This progressive disease challenges us in many ways and is often unpredictable day to day or sometimes hour to hour. Sometimes it is easier to run in the yard with our children or drive them to a friend’s or help them with homework and sometimes those activities may seem impossible. Although difficult to do at times, we must accept the fact that certain tasks and our ability to complete them, may be impacted. Obstinately trying to continue with our “normal” level of activity may result in frustration and disappointment. Not that you shouldn’t maintain your goals as a parent but the tasks you wish to accomplish may take a little longer, may need to be delegated to someone else or have to be modified in some way.
(7) Build a support network. It is important to have a strong network of family and friends that can lend a helping hand when you need some extra assistance. Practical issues such as driving your child to school, taking them for a play date and so on can be difficult at times. Having someone reliable to delegate these sorts of tasks to, can be invaluable.
(8) Don’t let guilt guide your parenting. It is only natural to sometimes feel guilty about the extra stress you may perceive your child is under because of your Parkinson’s. Or to feel bad about events that may have been missed or activities left undone. Although occasionally indulging them, to assuage your own feelings of guilt is quite normal, it is important to remember that children need guidance and boundaries.
The most important caveat to remember is to take nothing for granted. Every day is an opportunity for you to make a difference in the lives of your children, to guide them through the inevitable highs and lows that life brings – the type of influence only a parent can have. And that is one thing that Parkinson’s cannot take away.