It comes as no surprise that chronic illnesses are on the rise in children and teens in the U.S. Whether environmental causes, a sedentary lifestyle, or ‘the fault in our stars’ are to blame, the fact is that 15-18% of children and teens live with chronic diseases. Combine this growing statistic with the reality that kids are surviving illnesses today that they died from only two decades ago, as a society we must pay more attention to the emotional needs of all these young people living long-term with chronic illness.
Popular media today confirms that the time has come to better address the emotional needs of kids struggling with physical illness: take the character Elsa in Disney’s ubiquitous animation, Frozen—if ever there were a poster child for letting go of your feelings when you have a condition that makes you different, it is Elsa! Once she expressed her feelings, stopped living in fear and hiding, and accepted herself for who she truly was (someone who froze everything she touched), she felt exhilarated, empowered, and sang “Let it Go!” at the top of her lungs. What a great role model for any child with a handicapping condition! Indeed, the creator and executive producer of Frozen, John Lasseter, said that for him, Elsa represented the very challenges his own son, Sam, faced when diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age 10.
Now for the teen audience, there’s a new, hip show on Fox TV called Red Band Society, which focuses on the emotional ups and downs of several teenagers living in a pediatric ward of a hospital—they are facing cancer, heart disease, anorexia, and it is even narrated by a boy in a coma who manages to deeply affect each of the other characters’ lives. These kids are bursting at the seams with teen angst mixed with heartbreaking fear of their diseases. They rely mostly on each other, but you sense that these characters need some healthier, more regular outlet to get their most profound feelings off their chests.
Enter stage right: journaling. Journaling is a simple and affordable, yet very powerful, tool to help prevent emotional crises in kids with serious or long-term illnesses. I don’t mean a diary under lock and key to write about boy-crushes. I mean a book such as Digging Deep—A Journal for Young People Facing Health Challenges, with writing prompts, that a sick child or teen can relate to—a journal to express his or her feelings about how much it sucks to be in the hospital when their friends are all at homecoming. About how abandoned by their friends they feel. About how terrified they are they might die or never walk again or never have children!
Kids with serious illness have these heavy, life-changing matters to get off their chests, and they have very little opportunity to do that without journaling. I had brain cancer as a 24-year-old and was given only six months to live. I can tell you, almost 30 years later, that I’m still trying to get rid of that baggage. After I had healed physically from cancer, I onlybegan to heal emotionally, and I am still healing. I honestly feel that if I had been better able to express my hopes and fears when I first had cancer, rather than trying to stay strong, I may have healed faster physically as well, and I’d have had the resilience to better deal with other health issues and emotional challenges as they came.
Journaling and expressive writing in general:
- Encourage kids to express their personal feelings about being ill and how it has affected them emotionally—sort of a “therapist in a book.”
- Teach kids communication skills, so they can let their families and medical team know what’s really bothering them.
- Build kids’ emotional skill set so they can better cope with their diagnosis, treatment, and any future problems.
- Allow sick kids to be themselves, accept what they are going through, and move on emotionally from their situation.
- Remind a child or teen that their story is important and worth telling, giving them a sense of pride and boosting their self-esteem when they need it most.
These days we know that in order to heal physically, we need to heal emotionally as well. So let’s teach our kids from a young age to open up emotionally through journaling—they will be healthier and happier for it. Kids facing health challenges have amazing stories of courage to tell, if families and medical teams will just let them tell them. Not all sick kids can see a therapist or child life specialist, but certainly all kids can learn to journal, and to “Let It Go.” Thank you, Elsa.
Sheri Sobrato Brisson, MA, is a brain tumor survivor who discovered the importance of self-reflection during her recovery. From her personal illness experience and a dozen years supporting families and children with serious illness, her life’s philanthropic mission is to empower families and children facing serious illness. She has started and facilitated support groups for children with illness and their families for over twenty years with organizations such as the American Cancer Society, National Brain Tumor Foundation, Ronald McDonald House, and Packard Children’s Hospital. She received her master’s degree in counseling from Santa Clara University and her undergraduate degree in human biology from Stanford University.
Digging Deep: A Journal for Young People Facing Health Challenges will be released October 15, 2014. Available through ipgbook.com and amazon.com. For bulk orders or books sponsored through donation, firstname.lastname@example.org.