The Parent’s Role In Childhood Illness
There are many different factors that contribute to childhood chronic illness; ranging from environmental and nutritional factors, through to emotional and psychological factors. In my experience, if a child becomes ill and remains ill, it is rarely, if ever, just about the child.
Obviously, the mother and father are responsible for their children’s physical health, because they are the ones who make key decisions (from conception onwards) like: Do we eat organic, or pesticide/antibiotic/hormone-laden food? Do we cook with stainless steel or toxic T-Fal pots and pans? Do we cook our food in a microwave that denatures the proteins and causes harmful changes in our blood chemistry, or do we cook in the oven and stovetop? Do we dress our children in synthetic fabrics, which cause them to absorb xenoestrogens through their skin, or do we dress them in natural fabrics only? Do we clean our house and our clothes with natural substances, or do we use toxic, polluting substances? And so on.
More complex, however, are the ways in which parents are responsible for the emotional and psychological factors which can result in chronic illness. As John Harrison, MD writes in his book Love Your Disease; It’s Keeping You Healthy, “The interaction between members of a family will often initiate and maintain both health and disease.”
As a parent, our instant, knee-jerk reaction may be anger and indignation that somehow we are to “blame” for our child being ill, “How dare you even suggest that, when I am doing everything in my power to help my child!” And yes, our feelings are valid. We are doing everything we know of to help our child. But what if there are things we don’t know about? What if our ignorance is causing us to inadvertently reinforce our child’s illness? Are we to blame for that? No. But, ultimately, are we responsible for that? Yes. And taking responsibility is a wonderful thing – because it means that not only can we get to the root of what’s really going on, but we can fix it too!
How Illness Benefits Us
Illness can be used as a way to obtain protection; from an older sibling, from verbal, or physical attacks, or from stressful parental expectations to perform in various areas (scholastically, sports, religion, socially). When the pressure from parental expectations becomes too great to bear, illness is the one great pressure-reliever that’s accepted with no arguments and minimal negative consequences. Illness will not only allow a child to say “No”, without suffering anger, recriminations, or pressure, but usually with the added bonus of receiving sympathy, concern and caring.
Let’s look at a basic example of how this can work: Johnny doesn’t want to be on the soccer team anymore, he’s not enjoying it, it’s not fun anymore and he finds it too competitive and stressful. But Johnny’s Dad is the team coach and Johnny knows how terribly hurt, disappointed, and angry Dad would be if he told him he wanted to quit. Johnny knows his Dad will have a fit if he even suggests quitting. Johnny has tried to talk to his Mum about this, but his Mum also doesn’t want to go through the fallout from Dad, so she tries to placate Johnny with things like, “But Johnny, you love soccer. And you’re the top scorer on the team. You’d be miserable without soccer. And what are you going to do instead? Just sit around and watch TV? It’s only twice a week.” and so on.
So what are Johnny’s options? His gut and higher self are telling him not to play soccer on the team anymore, because it’s not healthy and enjoyable for him. And he also suspects there’s something not quite right about so much competition and anger among the parents and coaches of his soccer league, and this makes him feel tight and tense in his gut as well. But neither his Mum nor his Dad are open to hearing or accepting his truth and reality.
So, he can either go head-to-head with them, and state openly that he is quitting soccer (which will result in extreme hardship and hurt in his young life – and may not even be allowed) or he can physically incapacitate himself. If he develops a serious illness, or injury, that prevents him from playing soccer, not only will he fulfill the leading of his own mind/body wisdom, but he will have the support of his parents too. Brilliant! Could there be a better solution?
Instead of suffering anger, rejection and bad vibes in the house for weeks or months; by injuring himself, or becoming ill, Johnny gets to retire with the full love, support and concern of his parents.
How Emotional Stressors Create Physical Illness
Of course, none of this has been reasoned out or accomplished by Johnny’s conscious mind. This entire process and implementation has taken place on the subconscious and spiritual planes of Johnny’s being. Once you understand this dynamic, you will be able to trace back the roots of illness, injury, or ‘accident’, and see how our body is always advocating on our behalf. As the parent of a chronically ill or injured child, we have the challenge of courageously tracing the child’s pattern of illness back to our own unhealthy expectations, pressures, beliefs, energetic-environment, stressors, etc., that our child is responding to.
In this way, the Healing Journey for our child becomes a Healing Journey for ourselves, as well. And we can either accept this gift from our child and use it to become stronger, healthier people, or we can rail against it and become incensed that anyone dare imply that we are somehow responsible for our child’s illness.
How Stress Creates Illness
Stressor (pressure, expectation, demand, abuse, anxiety, fear, etc)
Triggers Nervous System & Hormones
Affects brain, nerves, pituitary, adrenal, kidney, blood vessels, connective tissue, thyroid, liver, white blood cells, and all the many interrelations between these
Primarily affects the hormonal system (adrenal glands), the immune system (spleen, thymus, lymph glands), the digestive system (intestinal lining)
Rats autopsied after stress had enlarged adrenals, shrunken lymph organs and ulcerated intestines.
(Compiled from When The Body Says No by Gabor Mate MD, Random House 2003, pages 31-33)
I held a teleseminar with Gabor Mate, MD, international bestselling author of When The Body Says No. At one point we were discussing how, as a child, you can develop unhealthy personality traits or behaviour patterns (like strict neatness, punctuality, perfectionism, high performance, etc.) as a way of surviving in your family environment. And you think that these traits are just ‘who you are’, so there’s nothing you can do to change them. But in actual fact, they were coping or adaptive mechanisms that were developed at such a young age that you assume they’re part of your core personality, although they’re actually not. I shared the example with Dr. Mate of myself being a neat and tidy person and he responded:
“I think you weren’t born like that. Nobody’s born a neat freak. It’s something that developed in response to the environment. Something happened, certainly, in your early environment. I would argue, without knowing really anything about your early life, that there were great expectations on you and possibly very negative consequences for you, if you didn’t live up to certain expectations. Or maybe there was so much emotional mess around you, that you kind of made a decision to be extraordinarily neat in your life in order not to go that route. But something happened very early. It’s a decision at an unconscious level that you made, but that doesn’t mean it’s part of your core personality. It’s been wired into you, but it’s not you.”
Well, I have to say, he hit a home run with that answer. Great expectations with very negative consequences? Yep. My Dad told me that if I didn’t bring home eight “A”s on every report card (out of 9 subjects), he would sell my horse – who I loved more than anything. Guess who always made the Honor Roll at school?
Next: Lots of emotional mess around me? Oh yes, my father was physically (and verbally) abusive with myself and my siblings, and my mother failed to protect us from his anger. Now, my situation may seem severe and not applicable to your situation. But, as in the example above with Johnny, family dynamics that create and support illness can be much more subtle.
I’m reminded of a client whose son had Crohn’s Disease. Now while there were clear physical factors that had contributed to his illness (vaccination, the mother had received multiple courses of antibiotics whilst pregnant and post-partum – but still breastfeeding, pasteurized milk intake, environmental and food-borne toxins, etc.), there were also some compelling emotional factors present within the family dynamic. For example, the mother and father had many serious, unresolved issues in their marriage. Having a chronically, dangerously ill child enabled the mother to focus on her son’s needs and also to sleep in his room for years; thereby helping the parents avoid dealing with their marital problems. This boy was providing a vital service for his parents, by preventing divorce, or a family atmosphere filled with tension, hatred and turmoil. And therefore, he was also ensuring his own emotional safety.
In Love Your Disease; It’s Keeping You Healthy, Dr. Harrison says, “We harm ourselves physically, in order to protect ourselves psychologically.” He tells a story about a client whose daughter, Jessica, was two days old when she had a seizure. The matron of the hospital ignorantly and mistakenly told the mother that baby Jessica nearly died due to lack of sufficient nourishment. This news, combined with the mother’s own need to have a dependent, fragile daughter, resulted in the mother overfeeding Jessica continually from infancy – so that she wouldn’t get sick. By the time they sought Dr. Harrison’s help, Jessica was in her twenties and very obese. Dr. Harrison says:
“Jessica had clearly decided that she couldn’t stay alive without being overfed by her mother. She still believed that unless she was obese, she would die. She’d been told that the way to stay well was to be fat, and therefore believed that if she lost weight she was risking becoming ill. This is an example of keeping unwell in order to stay well.”
If you are the parent of a chronically ill child, then a key component (and often the main component) of your child’s healing lies within you. Yes, this is a difficult reality to face. But again, don’t take it as blame. You are not to blame if you do not know what you are doing. But if you want to see your child (and yourself!) healed, then you must take responsibility for your contribution to your child’s illness. Once you start to identify the ways in which you are supporting illness – what you are doing, saying, expecting, the beliefs you hold, etc. – you can start to change, heal, and release these things within yourself. As you shift and heal, your child will shift and heal as well. For long-standing patterns, your child will likely need healing themselves. EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) is a great healing modality for both you and your child. But for young children and infants, often just healing and changing yourself is enough to produce shift and healing in them.
Disease-Causing Traits or Behaviours
If you are now an adult with a chronic illness, then identifying these triggers and contributors is a big part of your healing path. The top “disease-causing traits” – like inability to say ‘no’, taking responsibility for other people’s feelings, perfectionism, high achievement, feeling others’ pain more strongly than your own, repressed anger, unhealthy expression of anger, etc. – may have been acquired in childhood, but they can be healed in adulthood.
Going back to the example of my own childhood: As I have healed myself using various emotional and spiritual therapies like craniosacral, hypnosis, EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique – an acupressure tapping method), past life regression, acupuncture and energy healing – my parents have shifted and healed too. Because we are a family and energetically joined, the shift goes both ways; if the father heals himself, the son (or daughter) will automatically experience shift and healing. Likewise, if the son heals himself, the father will automatically experience shift and healing. In my case, both my parents were also very open to hearing and dealing with my truth and working together to effect healing in our lives. As a result, we have all experienced profound shift and healing in our lives and the love flows freely and strongly amongst us.
The thing that the adult child has to remember as she is healing the roots of her illness, is that her parents probably wounded her out of ignorance, and the woundings of their own childhoods. My father hit his kids because he was hit as a child and had not healed his own pain and trauma before he had children. He was performance-oriented and driven to high achievement because these were the lessons of his own childhood. He was born and raised in Kenya, but sent to boarding school alone in England at the age of 15. His father didn’t have enough money to send all eight children to university, so as one of the eldest, the pressure was on him to succeed and become financially successful. My mother could not adequately protect her children because she was swamped with dysfunctional behaviours and low self-esteem resulting from her own dysfunctional childhood. She did not have the self-esteem or personal power to stand up to my father and stop him from hitting us. She also couldn’t leave him, for numerous valid and understandable reasons.
As an adult child seeking healing, we need to be able to understand and have compassion for our wounded parents. Virtually no one harms their children intentionally – unless they are mentally ill. But even then, one must ask the question: Why is that person mentally ill? Again, we come back to the same place. You cannot give what you don’t have. And you cannot teach what you don’t know. So we must have compassion and understanding for both the wounded child and the wounded parent. And from these things, as we heal ourselves, will flow forgiveness.
Is this a wounding, a scourge, a trauma? Or is this an opportunity for healing? Of course, it is both. But if you remain stuck in the “I am a wounded person, I am a survivor, I am damaged” space, then your illness will continue. If you move into the Healing Journey pathway, then you open yourself up to root-level healing, forgiveness and love.
For myself, I am on both sides of the family dynamic of illness. I developed Crohn’s Disease in my teens as a result of childhood woundings. And I am now a parent, inflicting damage on my own children, through my unhealthy traits and behaviours. Yes, I have healed and resolved enough that I no longer have a physical illness, but I still have a fair way to go before I’m living, breathing and reacting in consistently healthy emotional patterns. I still have to be conscious about when, whether and how I am inflicting unhealthy behaviours on my children and teaching them (through my own behaviour modeling, pressures, and expectations) unhealthy traits and patterns of behaviour. Thus, I continue to seek healing and release for myself. I also use EFT acupressure tapping surrogately for my children (EFT is an effective therapy that you can use surrogately – on someone else’s behalf). I figure if I didn’t get their permission to screw them up, I don’t need their permission to heal them! It’s all part of the Healing Journey. Parents and children are energetically, physically, emotionally, and spiritually intertwined – this is the family dynamic that has the potential for great harm, or great love and healing. The choice is ours.
Whether you are an adult with a chronic illness, or the parent of a child with a chronic or serious illness, you can use the lists in the box following to identify unhealthy behaviours, beliefs and patterns, and then shift/heal them.
Ways That Parents Contribute To Illness In Children
Go through this list of harmful, stress-inducing behaviours, attitudes and beliefs and see which ones you are inflicting upon your child. This will help you identify some of the roots of your child’s dis-ease. Work on releasing these patterns (probably from your own childhood) from the “Negative” column, and replace them with the corresponding behaviours and attitudes in the “Positive” column
|Be perfect, be the best||Be yourself|
|Stay strong and tough||Stay open and get your needs met|
|Don’t cry, or don’t cry too much, or for too long||Express yourself, lovingly allow yourself to release your stress|
|Go hard or go home||Balance is the key to health and peace|
|Please me – this will bring you rewards||Consider yourself, respect your needs|
|Listen to me and do what I say – even if it goes against your own mind/body wisdom||Listen to your gut and your higher self at all times – they will never steer you wrong|
|Commit and stick with it, no matter what the cost||Stay flexible and adaptable|
And yes, the traits and behaviours in the left column usually produce “successful” people, who do what is expected of them in life and earn decent to excellent money. But do they produce healthy, happy people, who are at peace with themselves and their place in the world? Do they produce adventurous, joyful people who are healthy and secure?
Yes, it is possible to raise truly successful children, who aren’t driven by fear and external controls, but rather by their own wisdom and self-determination. Fear, stress and pressure produce illness. Safety, balance, openness and peace produce wellness.
Be sure and check out the Just For Kids section on my site to see the healing tools I use with my own children. And check the Heal Your Symptoms section for free treatment protocols for all kinds of childhood ailments.
Note: I originally shared these ideas a few years ago, but as I’m working on the 3rd Edition of Listen To Your Gut I felt these concepts – for both the parents of sick children, and the adults who became ill in their childhood/teens – are so important and so empowering, they were worth publishing fresh (with my updates and edits).