Helping Children Understand Family Illnesses
When a family member has a serious illness, talking about it with children can be so challenging or uncomfortable that many parents may wish to avoid it altogether. How parents discuss an illness in the family with children will depend on the nature and severity of the illness, how visible or disruptive the symptoms are to the family routine, and the age and developmental level of the child or children.
For many children, at some point in their childhood, there is bound to be some event or circumstance they will have to cope with before they are developmentally and emotionally ready to fully understand it. How parents handle the sharing of information can help fill the gap between feeling safe and being emotionally ready. This month, we will address this difficult yet important aspect of parenting.
Being honest doesn’t always mean sharing every little detail. There are ways to be honest with children without overwhelming or burdening them with too much information. As a general rule, children are best helped when they are supported in honest but measured ways that are appropriate for their age and emotional development. Questions and worries that are left completely unaddressed do not go away simply because they are not talked about. In fact, when not talked about, they have the potential to become even more worrisome — or scarier — in a child’s mind.
Helping Children Ages 6 and Younger
Very young children benefit from the comfort of the idea that the world is a generally safe place and that parents provide protection (even more than they actually do) from the dangers that do exist. For this reason, a parent’s first job is to take proactive care to prevent their young children from details that may be too much for them to bear. In the case of an illness that is serious or life-threatening, it may be necessary for parents to share that the particular family member is very sick, with the added reassurance that no one else is sick or will “catch” the sickness. In a measured way, parents can talk about how doctors or caretakers are helping to keep the person comfortable. For young children, this level may be sufficient, but may also lead to other questions that parents will have to answer.
Helping Children Ages 6 and Older
Older children should hear the same types of explanation from parents, but should also be encouraged to express their own thoughts. Parents of older children should keep in mind that one discussion is usually not enough to work out older kids’ worries and concerns, and that children are often reluctant to be the ones to initiate conversations about uncomfortable topics. Parents can remind their child of past conversations and ask if they have anything more they want to know or share.
A Child’s Sense of Safety
Children derive their sense of safety from reading their parents. When hardship or tragedies occur parents should convey, in a genuine way, that they find this very sad, but at the same time they should project a calm and confident air that their family is strong and that they are able to support each other — even through the hardest of times. By being supportive and honest with children in this way, parents can make themselves an important and valuable resource when their children need that stability and security most.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.