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Talking to your child about a sick loved one

Last Modified: 2/14/2020

Talking to kids

This post was written by Stephanie Appelhanz, BA, CCLS, certified child life specialist, Parkview Regional Medical Center.

When a loved one receives a serious diagnosis, it can be hard to comprehend, particularly for children. Here are some tips to help you navigate these difficult conversations.

Turn off all other distractions – This includes all technology (TV, tablet, phone). Set the stage for the conversation and talk in a space in which you think your child feels safe (a bedroom, living room, etc.). Allow yourself some time to support your child after talking about your sick loved one. Don’t rush it.

Keep their age in mind – Age-appropriate, simple and concrete language is the best way for your child to understand. Tell your child the name of the illness and explain what part of the body it affects, and how it will make your loved one feel. Explain how it is treated and what changes they may notice in their loved one. For example, “You might see that Uncle Johnny gets tired faster than usual when playing.” How the illness affects their daily activities is also something to share. If you need help with language to use, reach out to a child life specialist; we specialize in these tough conversations with children and teens.

Be honest – Tell your child the truth about the illness, using age-appropriate language and share potential changes in your loved one’s appearance or personality. If you don’t tell your child the truth and someone else does, your bond may change, and your child might not trust you in the future. He/she may think things are worse than what you have actually told them.

Address potential changes and be available for follow-up – Prepare your child for others treating your loved one differently. You can share what they might look like. An example might be, “Some people may not want to play with Martha because she lost her hair.” Give your child time for processing this and asking you questions. It’s normal for children to listen to what you have to say, play for a little bit, then come back to you with questions, as they are thinking through their feelings while playing. Stay close to your child for a little while after your conversation.

Allow your child to share and express his/her feelings – Tell your child it is OK for them to feel how they feel. It is OK to feel sad, mad, nervous or scared. Share that you feel that way too sometimes. Use drawing or coloring for expression and ask what they are drawing to open the conversation. Encourage your child to safely rip up paper or yell into a pillow if he/she is angry. If your child does not want to talk to you about their feelings, direct your child to find another safe person to confide in. Teens may benefit from talking to their friends or by finding a teen support group to share and process their feelings.


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