How to Talk to Children about Serious Illness

When a family member or loved one is seriously ill, the thought of explaining the illness to your child may feel overwhelming, particularly if you don’t think they are capable of fully understanding the situation.

However, children are often more aware of what’s going on than you might think. In fact, not speaking to your child about the illness might leave them more confused and anxious. Often, children sense tension or stress in others, no matter how discreet you try to be.

By speaking to your child about your loved one’s illness, you are providing some context for them to understand and face the changes ahead: changes in their loved one’s health, in their family dynamic or in their daily routine.

Following are some tips for talking to your child about their loved one’s illness.

  • Tell your child the truth about the illness, but in a developmentally appropriate way according to their age and cognitive capacity.
  • Let the child lead the conversation; answer only what they are asking right now.
  • Avoid making any promises about recovery or cure, but let your child know that it’s okay to have hopes and wishes for the sick person.
  • Understand that preschool-age children are likely to ask the same questions repeatedly over time. Rather than one conversation addressing the illness, plan to have an ongoing interaction that unfolds over time.
  • Prepare your child for any possible changes in their normal routine. For young children in particular, schedules are reassuring and provide security. If a routine will be altered due to a loved one’s illness, telling the child ahead of time can help them be mentally prepared.
  • Anticipate misunderstandings. Children have typically only experienced illness as a short-term issue and may be confused about why their loved one isn’t getting better. You might find that you need to explain the longevity of the illness many times before your child truly understands.
  • Prepare your child for changes in behavior. Particularly in the case of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, it can be distressing for your child to see their loved one’s personality change so drastically. You can mitigate this distress by preparing your child for the changes they are likely to see. You might say something such as, “Grandma’s illness makes her forget things, but she still loves you and wants to spend time with you.”
  • Let the child help. Whether they want to color pictures for their loved one or even push their wheelchair, it can be incredibly therapeutic for your child to feel useful during this confusing time. By giving them a concrete task, you are providing your child both distraction from the stress and an outlet for their emotional energy.

If your child is coping with the illness of a loved one, Kids Path can help. Call 336.544.5437 to speak with a licensed Kids Path counselor.