When a close family member becomes seriously ill, it can seem like a good idea to ‘shield’ the child from such a sensitive matter. We want to protect kids’ and their innocent emotions. As a school counselor, I dealt with many children who were experiencing a seriously ill parent or close relative and attended many workshops on the subject matter. In my own life, we are going through this now. My almost 5 year old son has questions – and we want him to hear and understand directly from us.
Keeping information from kids, no matter how old they are, can be detrimental. They overhear conversations, and without the guidance of adults to properly explain the situation, they can come to their own conclusions and end up pretty frightened and scared. It is so important to discuss with other involved adults in the child’s life to determine what information should be shared and how best to do it – therapists, school counselors, doctors and even clergy can help determine what information is important to share.
Here are 5 Tips for talking to your kids about the serious illness of a loved one.
1. Have a conversation and be truthful.
Start out by telling the child that the loved one is sick and what they have. “Our family is sad because Grandpa is sick. He has something called cancer. He is visiting doctors so that they can try to help and care for him.” Understand that your child may take a while to process this. It is okay if they don’t initially have a reaction. Revisit the topic and ask if they have any questions. Older children will ask about outcomes and it is appropriate to discuss possible outcomes such as recovery, life-long changes or even death.
2. Prepare the child for changes in the person or environment.
Let the child know about any changes in the environment of the person when visiting – i.e. the hospital vs. home, an oxygen tank, a cane – anything that will be different. Also help the child to understand that there may be physical changes in the person, such as hair loss, weight gain/loss or bedrest vs. being up and about. Mental or personality changes are also important to help the child understand – as with Alzheimers. Prepare the child for the idea or concept of dementia or loss of memories.
3. Anticipate common fears or misunderstandings
Reassure the child if they are concerned about becoming ill themselves, being able to “catch” the illness or if it raises questions about death or dying. There are many books for children on the subjects of illness or death. Searches online can yield a lot of useful titles that may help you in talking to your child about their fears or concerns. For younger children, it may require a lot of discussion since their understanding of illness is quite limited to a cold or cough.
4. Discuss what the child can do to help
Depending on the illness, this may look very different. If the person can have visitors, keep visits regular and often. Allow the child to come up with ways to spend time with the person – board games, card games, a small craft or activity. If the person is not able to have visitors as often, encourage the child to draw pictures, send cards, write letters or do short video chats. Older children may want to be able to help the sick relative around their home – cleaning up, yard work, etc.
5. Realistic reassurance
Don’t offer unrealistic reassurances to a child. If things are not going well with someone’s treatment, it is better for the child to be prepared for that.
Overall, you know your child best. Look for changes in their own behavior. Concerns, fear or emotions about a sick relative can come through in other behaviors. Keep teachers and other caregivers in the loop so they know there have been some changes.
Please note, it’s important to seek specific information or the help of a professional when the illness involves a sibling or parent. This is a somewhat different situation.