Managing Overwhelm as a Parent

Posted: Mar 8, 2023

Managing Overwhelm as a Parent of a Child with Cancer: Four Categories of Thoughts and Solutions

Author: Maureen Michele, MD

I stood in an ultrasound room and watched the technician point to a blob on the screen as a crowd of physicians looked over her shoulder. I was not a radiologist, but I knew the blob should not be there. It didn’t take long until my infant daughter was diagnosed with neuroblastoma. Her diagnosis and medical journey flooded my brain with thoughts which created a tidal wave of emotion. I was overwhelmed.

Coping with a child who has cancer can be an overwhelming experience for any parent. It is normal to feel stressed, anxious, and at times, even hopeless. Parents may feel like they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, trying to juggle hospital visits, medication schedules, and caring for their child's emotional needs. When parenting a child with cancer, there is no benefit to becoming stressed and overwhelmed. These are normal emotions, but they will keep us stuck in inaction.

It is overwhelming to be the parent of a child with cancer. As the mother of a cancer patient, I became overwhelmed with NG tubes, central lines, and countless admissions and doctors appointments even though I was part of the medical field. Life changed when I realized that it was not the medical supplies or appointments that made me overwhelmed, but rather my thoughts about all the things I needed to do as a mother of a chronically ill child. In this blog post, we will discuss the four categories of thoughts that create overwhelm and provide actionable solutions for you to manage your stress and anxiety.

1. All or Nothing Thoughts

All or nothing thinking is when we see things in black or white, good or bad, right or wrong. This type of thinking can create stress and anxiety because it does not allow for flexibility or adaptability. As a parent of a child with cancer, it is easy to fall into this type of thinking, especially when dealing with medical treatments or outcomes. However, it is essential to remember that progress is not always linear, and small victories should be celebrated.

     Actionable Solution: Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the practice of being present and aware of the current moment without judgment. It can help you focus on the present and appreciate the small things in life. Mindfulness can be practiced through meditation, yoga, or other relaxation techniques. There are many apps and online resources available to guide you through mindfulness exercises.

2. Perfectionist Thoughts

Perfectionist thinking is when we set unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others. This type of thinking can create stress and anxiety because it sets us up for failure. As a parent of a child with cancer, it is easy to feel like we have to be perfect and do everything right. However, this is an unrealistic expectation that can lead to burnout and exhaustion.

     Actionable Solution: Set Realistic Expectations

It is essential to set realistic expectations for yourself and others. Remember that you are human and can only do so much. It is okay to ask for help and delegate tasks when needed. Take breaks and prioritize self-care. Celebrate small victories and don't beat yourself up over mistakes.

3. "Should" Thoughts

"Should" thinking is when we impose judgment on ourselves or others. “I SHOULD have been more organized” or “My husband SHOULD have been at the appointment” are examples of this type of thinking. These thoughts can create guilt and blame resulting in feeling like the failure was avoidable. When we are trying to juggle all the balls of life, it is easy to fall into this type of thinking.

     Actionable Solution: Reframe "Should" Thoughts

Reframe "should" thoughts into "could" thoughts. For example, instead of saying, "I should have done more research on this treatment," say, "I could do more research on this treatment next time." This simple reframe can help reduce feelings of failure and disappointment.

4. People Pleasing Thoughts

People pleasing thinking is when we prioritize the needs of others over our own needs. This type of thinking can add to exhaustion and lead to caregiver burnout. As a parent of a child with cancer, it is easy to put your child's needs above your own, but it is important to prioritize your own self-care.

     Actionable Solution: Set Boundaries

Setting boundaries is essential for self-care. It is okay to say no and prioritize your own needs. Ask for help when needed and delegate tasks. Take breaks and prioritize self-care activities that bring you joy and relaxation.

In conclusion, being a parent of a child with cancer can be overwhelming, but it is essential to manage stress and anxiety to provide the best care for your child. By identifying the four categories of thoughts that create overwhelm and implementing actionable solutions, parents can learn to manage their stress and anxiety and prioritize self-care. Remember to celebrate small victories, set realistic expectations, reframe "should" thoughts, and set boundaries.

Maureen Michele, MD is an award-winning leader, life coach, author, and physician. As a general pediatrician and allergist/immunologist, she has spent her career caring for patients with a variety of acute and chronic health problems. She is a military veteran and has enjoyed using her story-telling talent to teach young physicians the art of medicine. She is an accomplished life coach who helps parents of chronically ill children regain control of their lives and thrive at fulfillment. Maureen is the mother of three amazing children and has first-hand experience with being a parent of a child with long-term health issues. Maureen enjoys jumping rope, hiking, and playtime with her two extraordinary four-legged sidekicks! 


Instagram - @maureenmichelemd