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The mission of Wonders & Worries is to help children cope when a parent faces a serious or life-threatening illness. As traumatic as it can be for an adult to be diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, psychologists report it can be even more devastating to a child. It is well known that experiencing a stressful life event can cause psychosocial problems in children. With more than 1.4 million households experiencing cancer diagnoses of a parent while raising children under the age of 18, there is a critical need for the services of Wonders & Worries. Until now, little has been done to help children who are understandably confused by the dramatic news and life changes.
In 2001, following their extensive work with pediatric oncology patients and children affected by other chronic illnesses, Meredith Cooper, MS, CCLS, LPC and Melissa Hicks, MS, CCLS, LPC, RPT created the Wonders & Worries program because they saw the need for more formalized psychosocial services for children and adolescents who have a parent diagnosed with a chronic or life-threatening illness. As professional Child Life Specialists working in a hospital setting, they saw first-hand the devastating effects a family member’s illness can have on the emotional well-being of the entire family. Funded by a start-up grant from Livestrong, Wonders & Worries is a unique program provided by professionals who are specially trained to help children and their families understand and manage challenging life events and stressful health care experiences.
Despite the documented adverse effects and magnitude of the numbers of potentially affected children, most therapies, services and programs in cancer and other illness are focused on the diagnosed patient, not on the family or children. To date, little has been done to help children and families survive the challenges raised when a parent is ill. Research is leading to new information about families facing a health crisis and interventions for helping them cope.
Medical professionals and community members who work with children share in the concern about affected children. They want to provide helpful, informed support to parents and children, but rarely has either group had the opportunity to receive specific education about how children at different ages understand cancer, ways to support good parenting practices during times of challenge, or ways to address the differing needs of children.
Unfortunately, with a parent’s diagnosis, the extensive psychological needs of the children and the special needs of the family unit are greatly unmet. When a parent is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, it is important early on to identify family members who may be at risk for psychological maladjustment. Families know state-of-the-art medical care is important. What they often do not realize is that state-of-the-art psychological care should also be included to provide coping skills to ease anxiety, depression and the stress response symptoms.
Wonders & Worries offers free, bilingual individual and group counseling sessions for children ages 2-18, child/parent relationship training classes, informal support with recreational group activities, and bereavement support. Since 2001, Wonders & Worries has worked with more than 4,000 individuals in over 1,000 Central Texas families. Wonders & Worries receives no state, federal, or government funding or subsidies. All services are offered free of charge, and 41% of clients served through Wonders & Worries are designated as “underserved” based on household income. Over 20 percent of client families report an earned income of less than $25,000 annually.
Wonders & Worries works with families in all stages of survivorship, who are affected by cancer, or any life-threatening or chronic physical illness. The organization’s 6-week comprehensive, individualized counseling program for children is copyrighted, and professional third party analysis indicates the program has proven results with children and families. It is the only program of its kind in the region, state, country, and beyond.
Wonders & Worries services are based on empirical data which shows that psychosocial support and illness education provided to children at an age-appropriate level significantly helps children, eases stress within the family, improves parent’s depressed mood, and increases the parent’s ability to focus on treatment and well-being.
Wonders & Worries is committed to evaluating the effectiveness, impact, and benefits of its programs. Since 2007, the organization has worked with an independent consultant to evaluate its programs. In 2009, Wonders & Worries contracted with Nybeck Analytics, a consulting firm with Ph.D. level training, which specializes in program evaluation. Findings from each survey show that Wonders & Worries programs are highly effective. Children served by Wonders & Worries derive a combination of behavioral benefits that span all areas of their young lives, from communicating about the illness, to an improved relationship with the ill family member, better school performance, and a decrease in feelings of anxiousness and nervousness. Nybeck’s most comprehensive analysis (2009) reported “ninety-one percent of families said that their family’s ability to handle the stress of illness was ‘much better now’ or ‘somewhat better now’ than before coming to Wonders & Worries.”
One parent recently shared the following through a Nybeck Analytics survey: “I think what Wonders & Worries does is absolutely miraculous – generous, comforting, solid. They step in at the toughest moments in our lives and provide a place for our kids to feel and express their feelings about the illness and, at the same time, (allow children) to step away from the stress at home.”
As the cost of medical care skyrockets, we are faced with making a case for putting resources into caring for a group of children whose needs have been routinely overlooked. Addressing the needs of these children offers no obvious financial benefit to the hospital providing the parent’s care, and may not offer demonstrable gain for the family’s insurer in the short term. Therefore, understanding the needs of affected children and providing preventative support and direct care must come from an ethical commitment, an investment in the next generation and sensitivity to the painful worries of children and parents facing a health crisis within the family.
Wonders & Worries services are unduplicated, not only in Central Texas, but anywhere in the world. Our future vision is to offer Wonders & Worries programs in every city across North America.