Finding out your child has a disease or illness can be an incredibly difficult time. Not only are you worried about your child, the challenges of treatment, changes to schooling and your child’s daily routine – you may not know how best to explain to your child that he or she has an illness.
Amanda Thompson, pediatric psychologist and Director of Patient Support Services at the Children's National Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders, explains effective ways to navigate this difficult conversation.
Have the Conversation Sooner Rather than Later
Take some time to prepare yourself, but telling your child about his or her medical condition before too much time has passed is the best way to approach this difficult situation. Kids are very observant and can quickly tell when something is being withheld from them – whether it’s your tearful eyes or the tone of your voice.
Take a deep breath and share the news of the illness with your child. Your child will feel less fearful when he or she knows what’s going on.
Call the Illness by Its Name
Be honest with your child about the specific diagnosis. Don’t sugarcoat the term or think of it as a big, scary word.
Children might not understand what the diagnosis means right away, but they will hear the word spoken by others and it helps for them to get familiar with it. This also takes away fear associated with the word.
Keep Talking With Your Child
How much information do you tell your child about an illness all at once? Give out information in small bits rather than covering everything in one discussion. This is especially important for younger children.
Children need time to process complicated information and make sense of it at their own pace. Therefore, it’s important to let the conversation unfold over time with a series of talks.
Use simple, concrete terms to break down information about your child’s medical condition. Give them space to take breaks and ask questions openly so he or she will feel safe.
It’s not uncommon for young children to think that they may have done something to cause their illness. Make it clear that this isn’t the case. At every age, emphasize that highly trained specialists will provide nurturing care and medicine to help him or her feel better.
Most importantly, reassure your child that you will be close by every step of the way.
Be Specific About the Impact the Illness Will Have on Your Child and the Family
Take time to describe how the illness and treatment will affect your child’s daily routine, as well as time with siblings and other family members. Your child will likely have questions, such as:
- Will I have to take time off from school to go to doctor’s appointments?
- Will I have to stay overnight in the hospital?
- Who will watch my siblings at home?
- Will I still get to play sports?
- How will the medicine make me feel?
Preparing your child for what to expect can go a long way to support overall coping and reduce anxiety – whether he or she has a general illness or a chronic disease. By following these tips, you’ll be equipped to communicate effectively with your child and help him or her adjust well to the changes and challenges ahead.