The following suggestions can help you talk with your child about illness and help your child cope positively with an illness in the family.
- Honesty is the most important tool. Provide honest, accurate information at the child’s developmental level related to the illness and its treatment. It may be helpful to talk with older children first and then give them the choice in helping explain things to younger children.
Children will process things in small chunks of information and will need information repeated. It is normal for a child to request to “go play” soon after hearing difficult information. This does not mean that he/she did not understand.
- Use the name of the disease. Many children will hear it somewhere. If children hear family members explain the diagnosis, it can help them to feel included and trusting.
- Keep children informed about the current medical status as you know it. It is OK to not have all of the information when you talk with children.
- If your child asks a question that you don’t know the answer to you can say that right now you don’t know the answer but that you will let them know when you have more information.
- Let children know what you are doing to help treat the illness and what the side effects are. Explain changes related to energy level and mood.
- If possible, allow children the choice to go visit the treatment center or make hospital visits and make sure they are well prepared for what to expect.
- Be sure children understand that they did not cause the illness in any way and that it is not contagious (if this is true).
- Encourage children to ask questions. Older children may even want to ask questions of medical staff.
- Help children to know that it is OK to express their feelings and that you are willing to talk about anything they would like to discuss.
- Encourage the expression of feelings. Help children find acceptable ways to express anger.
- Allow yourself to express your emotions in front of your children. It supports that it is alright to feel different ways.
- Allow for alternative support people for children to talk to. They may be afraid to tell the person with the illness something for fear it may upset them.
- Keep routines as normal as possible. This predictability allows for a sense of security during an uncertain time. Explain any necessary changes in routines.
- Let children know it is OK to still have fun and do normal activities even though your family is coping with an illness.
- Reassure children that they will be cared for no matter what happens. Talk about who is available to help take care of them and make a safety plan in case the ill person needs to go to the hospital unexpectedly.
- Allow children to find ways to help and be included in new family routines related to the illness experience. However, be careful not to put too much additional responsibility on children.
- Observe for changes in behavior such as mood, eating and sleeping patterns etc.
- Inform schools about what is going on in the family, as it may impact children’s school performance.
- If possible, allow your children to interact with other children who may be facing similar life experiences. It helps them to know they are not alone.
- Be prepared to discuss difficult topics such as death. It is normal for children to ask about whether someone might die from a serious illness. You can focus on what you believe (for example “I am doing everything I can to help my body get better and I believe I am going to live for a long time.”) You can be honest and be hopeful. With a cancer diagnosis you might say, “Some people do die from cancer, but most people get better”.
If the illness is terminal you can focus on what is happening now and what is expected in the near future. You can let children know that you will keep them informed if/when things change.