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How to Talk to Children About a Serious Illness

By Judy Schwartz Haley August 14, 2015 Posted in: Family Health , Article

If you or someone close to you is diagnosed with an illness, there will be so many questions running through your mind — so imagine how your kids must feel! People sometimes find themselves at a loss regarding how to talk to children about a serious medical condition. Know that you can't allay all their worries or fears, just as you can't do so for yourself. This will be a long-term process wherein you continually gauge their understanding and maturity as treatment progresses, and your conversations will change as the kids' needs change.

Be Upfront

You might want to protect kids from knowing about a diagnosis, but that idea can backfire. Children are perceptive, and they pick up on adults' emotional states even if they don't understand the context. If they can tell their parents are distressed but don't know why, their vivid imaginations may fill in the blanks with an explanation that is more frightening than the truth. Being straightforward with your kids will help you avoid this reaction and build trust.

Your discussion does not need to be stressful or lengthy. Get right to the point. Focus on communicating what children can understand and then encourage them to ask questions.

Allow Them to Feel Their Emotions

Your kids' emotions are just as real as yours, and it's better to help them channel and deal with them than to bury them. Anxiety, sadness, or anger regarding a medical condition is a completely reasonable reaction. Many kids flourish with some counseling to teach them skills for coping and managing their emotions, which will help them throughout their lives.

When talking your kids, ask them to describe their emotions. You may think they are worried about one thing before finding out their stress is coming from a completely different place. Talking about feelings is a great tool for helping them through the process and driving deeper conversations.

Kids are egocentric, so they tend to think everything is about them. Their concerns may center around how the diagnosis is going to impact them, and they may be worried about who will take care of them if the medical condition hits close to home. These concerns are natural, especially for young children, and it does not mean that they're missing the point or being selfish. Let them know well in advance how their day-to-day routines may change as a result of what's going on.

Include Them

Talk to your kids about ways they can help with treatment or care. Give them jobs to do, even if it's only chores to help ease caregivers' loads, and ask them for their suggestions on how to get everything done. Their participation in the planning process can help make them feel like they're a part of the solution.

Don't Make Promises

It's tempting to say that everything will be just fine and life will go back to normal soon, but this kind of promise is not helpful. Sometimes, it's better to say that we don't know the outcome. If the diagnosis is terminal, then it's even more important not to make false promises. Learning how to talk to children means being honest with them; it's even OK to say you're scared. You can tell them that things are going to be different, but you're all going to do your best to work together to get through this.

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