I took a flu shot earlier this week. Afterwards, my youngest daughter and I were talking about influenza, how it spreads and why vaccinations are important. She was uncharacteristically silent for a few moments after we finished the flu conversation. Then she asked me the question I’ve dreaded, “Daddy, will I get MS when I grow up?”
I’ve dreaded the question not because it’s a difficult subject to discuss. We’ve talked about it before. I’m open with my daughters and tell them as much as they’re able to comprehend. I believe having information before one needs it makes life easier. During the years of my wife’s MS, she and I have both made sure they know one doesn’t “catch MS like someone catches a cold.” Talking about MS and heredity is easy.
But I’ve dreaded this day.
I’ve dreaded the day when she would ask the question of her own accord because it means she is worrying about MS for herself. As we mature we lose a little innocence day by day about the world around us. The same thing happens when a child grows up with a family member who has a chronic disease. One loses innocence through exposure.
I wish she were still MS-innocent. But she’s not. Fortunately, she’s not a worrier.
The statistics are available and easy to report. According to The Multiple Sclerosis Gateway (created by Bayer Schering Pharma), “Children where one parent has MS have about a 3% risk of developing MS later in life.” The risk is 20-40% greater than the risk for the general population who have no parents with MS. On the bright side, that means there’s a 97% chance my daughters will never have the disease.
Stats are easy to report. What isn’t easy is the small dread that will always be a part of her life. Even if she doesn’t spend time worrying about it, it’s there hiding in the dark of negative possibilities. It’s something I think of everyday for both my daughters.
How did I respond to her question?
“You don’t catch MS like you do a cold when someone sneezes on you. You know you won’t get it from hugging or kissing Mommy. It’s not like that. I can’t say you’ll never have MS, but I can say it’s something you don’t need to worry about. The chances are so small. There’s a very tiny possibility but it’s certainly not probable. The chances are very great that you never will.”
“Do you worry about me getting MS?”
“Yes. I do at times. But not nearly as much as I worry about other things all the time.”
“I worry about things like how you’ll do on your math test next week. I worry if you’re ever going to clean your room. I worry if you will be a good driver when you’re older. I worry about those things a lot more than I worry about you or your sister getting MS.”
“I’ll be a good driver.”
“Yeah, I know, but will you ever clean your room?”
I also know that she and I will have this conversation again the next time she becomes concerned about whether she’ll develop Multiple Sclerosis.
Caregiver Tip: Children who have family members with MS will wonder if they will get the disease. Be honest with children in a way that normalizes their concerns without giving them reason to worry. How to be honest while minimizing worry is something each parent must determine based on their knowledge of their child, his or her personality, and the child’s tendency to worry.