Talking about an illness is never a pleasant experience, but it can be even harder when you must talk to your children. Whether it is a friend, relative, parent or themselves who have been diagnosed, children have a right to know about the illness but are in the unique position that they may not be old enough to understand, or mature enough to deal with, the details. If you must talk with your children about illness, the following guidelines may make it easier.
Name the Disease
As with everything, illness is somehow less scary when it has a name. Share this information with your children, as well as a small description. For example, telling your child “Nana has cancer” may not even register as an illness. Instead, tell your child “Nana has cancer, which means that there are bad little things called tumours growing inside of her. We must help her to stay strong and take the medicine to fight the tumours.”
Tell Them What They Need to Know Now
Children are creatures of the moment. They will want to know what is happening right now and may not understand the big picture anyway. Be ready for a slew of questions, including:
- Why must we go to the GP/hospital/hospice/chemist today?
- Who is that doctor/nurse/orderly?
- What are those tablets?
- Why do there have to be needles?
- What is in a drip?
- How is that making (the patient) feel?
- Will (the patient) feel better tomorrow?
- Will it help if I bring (the patient) my favourite toy?
- How did (the patient) become ill?
- Can I catch what (the patient) has?
If your child asks a question that you can’t answer, don’t be afraid to tell them that you don’t know. Honesty, even if it means no answers, is always preferable to dishonesty.
Understand Their Emotions
Most children, when faced with illness themselves or in someone they love, will feel that it is their fault. Obviously adults may not see this logic, but help your child understand that they have done nothing wrong by:
- Reassuring them that they have nothing to do with the illness.
- Asking a professional such as your GP to reaffirm that the illness is not the result of anything they did, thought or said.
- Explaining how the illness began.
- Watching their behaviour. Misbehaving may be their way of showing their emotions.
- Acknowledging your emotions. Commiserate with your child about your frustration so that they know they are not alone.
Enlist the Aid of Others
Finding others who have fought the same illness, or any illness, can be a life saver when dealing with children. Consider enlisting the aid of:
- Adult support groups.
- Children’s support groups.
- Church groups.
- School counsellors.
- Private therapists.
Though it will never be an enjoyable experience, talking with children about illness can be less painful if you understand that your child will have questions, fears and possibly a certain amount of guilt. Help your child as best you can, and don’t be afraid to enlist the aid of others to help you!