ACP's ABC of child mental health continues with C - looking at the compassionate approach to supporting children with a serious illness

C is for compassion in dealing with loss and serious illnesses.

There has been a great deal of discussion and publicity in the media of late about one serious illness in particular - cancer and its impact on our lives. Psychoanalytic Child Psychotherapist, Jane Elfer works with children and young people who have cancer and calls for a compassionate response and understanding when it comes to illness and facing uncomfortable feelings around loss.

Cancer in childhood and adolescence is a difficult subject. Most people are shocked and horrified when they hear of a child who has cancer and whilst huge steps have been made in its treatment and survival rates, cancer is still one of the major causes of premature death. One of the publicity campaigns about cancer depicts alien beings which are cancer cells - being destroyed, giving the impression that we as human are under attack and we must fight back.

There are many books available now with good advice about what to eat, which super food will protect you best and how much to exercise. We can of course do our best to avoid illness but we cannot always avoid becoming ill.

Child and adolescent psychotherapists who work with parents of children and young people diagnosed with cancer, see how parents search themselves to find the cause of the illness, generally blaming something they did or did not do for their child. This causes greater distress to the child and their family. Elfer who works in a cancer unit talks about how fighting an illness and trying to get better shouldn't be the only focus.

“The idea of ‘fighting’ can often be unhelpful as young people can struggle with their feelings of sadness or despair. Having these feelings, even for an instant may mean to them that they will lose the fight. Those who retreat and cannot speak or join in the fight can then also find it difficult to connect with others and allow for the grief they feel about the loss of the self they had known or were getting to know.”

As ACP trained child psychotherapists, we are trained to make sense of some of the most complicated and uncomfortable feelings about loss. Specialists who understand loss can really help families come together where they are allowed a place to think about the individual journey of their child or young person with cancer.

The ACP has produced a leaflet for parents who have young children with serious illnesses. See here 

To learn more about the cancer unit at UCH se here