Cancer is a fork in the road — from that point, you can go right or left, but as much as you might wish it weren’t so, it’s almost impossible to keep going the same direction you were before your diagnosis. For a young patient, cancer can be a fork in a parent’s road as well. Many studies have shown that parents often feel a child’s medical trauma as their own. It’s not even that a traumatized child creates “secondary trauma” in the parent — it is as if the parent him or herself experiences their child’s medical trauma.
But for both parents and children, trauma is only one side of the story. The other side can be posttraumatic growth — the positive changes that can develop in the aftermath of trauma.
A study published in the journal Child Health Nursing Research explores posttraumatic growth in adolescent leukemia survivors and their parents. Basically, the study asked 68 survivors, ages 13-18, and their parents how much the teen’s cancer experience had affected them, how much they had thought about the impacts, and how much of this change could be seen as “growth.”
Interestingly, the study found that the more adolescents and their parents adjusted their core beliefs, and the more they ruminated on how they adjusted these beliefs, the more posttraumatic growth they experienced. Again, there were two major predictors of posttraumatic growth: the adjustment of core beliefs and the extent to which patients/parents chose to think deeply about their experience. And “choice” is an important word — patients and parents who found thoughts about the illness experience intruding on their lives experienced less growth; patients and parents who chose to ruminate on the illness experienced more growth.
“In both adolescents and parents, the more their core beliefs were shaken, the more readily they could view the stressful situation under a positive light. Disruption of core beliefs also made participants more likely to engage in deliberate rumination and was associated with higher PTG levels,” the authors write.
Also interestingly, parents tended to experience overall more posttraumatic growth than their children. It was as if the adolescents who actually experienced leukemia were somehow less shaped by the experience than their parents.
“These results suggest that, to foster PTG in adolescents with leukemia and their parents, interventions designed to help the affected adolescents and their parents accept the situation and find new meanings in challenging circumstances should be provided,” the study writes.
Dr. Pikiewicz earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, CA. She completed pre-doctoral training at the Nan Tolbert Nurturing Center in Ojai, CA, and her post-doctoral internship at the Boulder Institute for Psychotherapy and Research. At both sites, Dr. Pikiewicz worked with a range of adult, adolescent and child clients in individual, couple, family and group settings. She also holds a B.S. in environmental science from Allegheny College and a teaching credential from Western Washington University.