How to Talk to Children About Illness in the Family

Children depend on their families for everything, so losing a family member is often a child’s worst fear. Young children commonly experience bouts of separation anxiety when their parents merely leave the room. Telling kids that someone in the family has an illness must be done with great care and sensitivity.

Offer Gentle Honesty

  • Be truthful. Kids learn about important issues like trust and honesty in childhood. It’s important to be forthright, even when the subject matter is difficult and painful.
  • Don’t sugarcoat. Kids are surprisingly resilient, and when they are allowed to ask questions and encouraged to be open about their feelings, many can handle frightening news as well as adults. While there is no need to eliminate children’s hopes that their ailing family member will somehow recover, don’t misrepresent the facts.
  • Don’t hide the illness. Each family must decide for themselves when to give children information regarding the illness of a family member as well as how much, but it is never wise to keep quiet about the situation. Children are very perceptive and will feel that something isn’t right, even if they do not know exactly what it is. Establishing an environment of openness and honesty will help them not only process the initial news but also cope with their ongoing feelings.

Provide Appropriate Information and Be Available

  • Take maturity level into consideration. Very young kids need only the simplest information about a family member’s illness. Older children and teens are likely to require more detailed information and may have many questions, especially after they’ve had time to process the news.
  • Set an open-door policy. During the initial conversation with children of any age, kids should know that they can return with their questions and concerns at any time and that they are free to express their emotions.
  • Take time to check in. When families are in turmoil, as often happens during times of serious illness, children can sometimes feel lost in the shuffle and may hesitate to ask for help. So it is up to the adults in their lives to make sure they are coping as well as possible.

Address Questions

  • Reassure them their needs will be met. Young kids may worry about how the illness will impact their daily lives. They may wonder who will cook their meals, help them with schoolwork and tuck them in at night. They are not being selfish; they are merely being children. Kids often thrive on routine, so factors that disrupt their daily lives can cause considerable anxiety. Answer their questions with compassion.
  • Help them find answers. Older kids are likely to ask the really difficult questions. Matters of faith and the afterlife often come up. Kids may also ask about specific treatments, side effects and a time frame for how long a family member has to live. Sometimes answers to these questions are not readily available. If that’s the case, assure kids that you will help them do the necessary research or direct them to someone who may be able to offer assistance.

Alleviate Fears

  • Give comfort. Hearing the news of the illness is sure to bring forth a wide range of emotions in children, the greatest of which may be fear. Kids need reassurance that they will be helped through this process and that their feelings are normal.
  • Be extra attentive. Crying is common, but not all children show such obvious symptoms that they are sad or worried. Some may misbehave, isolate themselves or erupt in angry outbursts. Kids will need extra attention and consideration when family members are ill. Grieving begins when families first learn a problem exists, but there is no set timetable for when it will end.