Having a family member who is living with dementia is hard on everyone, particularly at the holidays. Sometimes the adults in the family talk about the changes they see, share suggestions they may have heard from their peers or read about in the media. Everyone wants to do their best to keep expectations realistic and keep the atmosphere as calm and enjoyable as possible. But what about the kids?
What often happens is that the experience of the children overlooked. This might be for any number of reasons, including the idea that they are too young to understand or cope with the changes they see in the person they have known their whole life, most likely in a positive and loving relationship.
Trying to protect a child from what is going on may not be in their best interest. They are probably very sensitive to the changes. Some ideas about this:
- If a child is not prepared, a simple visit can turn into a traumatic experience, especially if Grandma does not remember them or gets unexplainably forgetful, frustrated, or angry.
- By setting the stage for dementia as a taboo subject, children can become confused. They pick up on changes, can’t explain it, and may not bring it to your attention. Then they are alone in their distress and uncertainty.
- Children may overhear other family members talking about the person with dementia and might not have the tools to understand what they are hearing.
- It is helpful to coach children about understanding that the unusual behavior the are seeing is “normal” for someone who lives with dementia and be given the space to ask questions and talk about their own feelings. Help them understand it is not their fault.
- When you are having your own difficulties dealing with changes in a loved one, it may seem easier to wait until you are “better” before you talk to your kids. That is probably not the best strategy for helping the younger members of the family.
So how do you talk to a young one?
- Talk less, listen more. Explain the basics, no need to go into detail about what happens in later stages.
- Let them absorb what is being said and allow for silence at times if your kid needs to process the information they’ve been given.
- Be supportive and encourage them to ask questions.
- Be honest and open without giving more detail than is necessary at the time.
- Comfort them in whatever way you know how to be helpful; chances are this isn’t the first time you’ve needed to soothe your kid’s fear, anxiety, or sadness. Pull out your parenting toolkit.
- Suggest ways they can “help” – sit with grandma and watch TV or listen to music, tell her about school or friends, and also coach your child in the art of redirection. Nothing too complicated – just if they notice Grandma is getting edgy or nervous, to perhaps ask her if she’d like some ice cream, play with the dog, change rooms, take a walk.
Thinking through the process of including children in strategies to ease their worries could help everyone have a better outcome at your holiday gathering. Preparation for family holiday time that includes some of these ideas can be the difference between a distressing experience for your child and one that helps her/him feel they are a part of the family team.