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How to Talk to Children When a Loved One Is Seriously Ill

December 08, 2020

If your family is dealing with the death or serious illness of a loved one, take some time to consider how your children are handling it — and what you can do to help them navigate this confusing, and possibly frightening, time. Children can absorb a great deal, and often imagine the situation to be worse than it is, with studies showing that even preschoolers can be significantly affected. Although discussing a loss with your child won’t make it less painful, you can certainly offer significant support and teach healthy coping skills they will need as they process things. 

Consider Your Child’s Developmental Stage

Before you find a quiet place to sit down for an uninterrupted talk, make sure your approach fits your child’s age. Plan ahead so that parents and caregivers are on the same page, with an accurate grasp of what your child can and cannot comprehend. If you’re unsure, ask your pediatrician for help in figuring out what works best for your child’s developmental stage. 

Be ready to deal with a range of emotions. If a loved one is battling a disease, your preschooler may worry about catching it or believe that the illness was their fault. Young children may struggle to understand death as being permanent, and might ask the same questions repeatedly. Older children are likely to have more complex thoughts, and might worry more about recovery prospects. Also understand that even children of the same age may process and react differently.

Because kids need time to digest information, they may grow quiet or have delayed or minimal reactions. Don’t be surprised if preschoolers or young school-aged children have regressions, such as bedwetting or thumb-sucking. They also may throw tantrums or refuse to eat or sleep. School-aged children may lose focus with schoolwork or become angry, depressed or confrontational. Adolescents may enter a shut-down mode or exhibit risk-taking behaviors. 

Three Guidelines

When discussing a loved one’s serious illness with your child, keep these three guidelines in mind.

  • Be consistent. If one caregiver tells the child “Nana is sick” but another says “She’s doing fine,” this sends conflicting messages that can create confusion and even challenge caregivers’ trustworthiness.

  • Use simple but truthful terms. In other words, use language that your child understands. “Grandpa has a big booboo” might be more understandable for a young child than “diagnosed with cancer.” Avoid giving false hope, such as “I’m sure Grandma will feel better soon” or “She would never miss your birthday” if this isn’t likely. If you feel guilty or feel you are hiding something, try to rephrase. Give just enough detail for your child to comprehend the main idea, but not too much. With older children, you may need to explain that a loved one is in a hospital where the nurses and doctors are helping. However, details about treatments such as chemotherapy, ventilators and sedation can be frightening and are unnecessary. Filter this information beforehand and plan with your partner how much detail is appropriate for your child’s age.

  • Model healthy responses. Allow them to see your own reactions and understand that being sad or unhappy is natural. This can be a powerful teaching tool. Give children time and space for their emotions and avoid telling them how to feel. If a child doesn’t react much, know that they may be quietly grieving, and still need your support and attention. Involve teachers and other caregivers to continue to monitor and support the child through this difficult time.

If you or a caregiver are feeling overwhelmed, depressed or anxious, don’t hesitate to seek mental health care as this will be critical in helping children learn to cope.

Why Difficult Conversations Matter 

How you approach these challenging subjects can make a world of difference in how your children deal with grief. While you are helping them through a loved one’s immediate illness, you also are teaching them critical life skills for similarly challenging events in the future. 

Learning to grieve well can help to decrease the likelihood of developing anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions that are often exacerbated by traumatic life events. The earlier children learn healthy coping skills, the more resilient they may become in the face of any future challenges.


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