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Published on February 18, 2020

mother having talk with her son

How to Talk to Kids About a Serious Diagnosis

When a new diagnosis or serious illness is named your life takes a sudden and difficult turn. You find yourself in new and unfamiliar territory. 

A family member’s illness/diagnosis may impact the entire family. To what degree it effects your family depends on whether that person is a parent, grandparent or extended family member. Depending on how close this person is to your child, it may influence how much information you wish to share and what it means for your family. It may be a struggle coping with numerous stressors including how to have a difficult conversation with members of your family. It is normal to have a wide range of emotion.

Prior to talking to your children about these changes, you may want to stop and reflect on what challenges lie ahead for you if indeed you are the person who has the new diagnosis, or if you will be the caregiver for another family member. There is so much new information to learn and decisions to make, you may wish to plan your conversation ahead of time. You will need to find a balance of what, how and when you share the news.

Build Trust with Honesty 

As a parent you know your child best and although you may be nervous to share, this relationship is built on trust and honesty is key. Use the name of the disease – Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes – whatever it may be. Saying the word makes it matter-of-fact and familiar, helping children to know the reference. Many children will hear it somewhere or see it written down; it is better to share the news sooner rather than later.

Children will process things in small chunks of information and will need information repeated. Having open communication is important. Use terms your child can understand. If your child asks a question and you don’t know the answer, you can say that right now you don’t know the answer, but that you will let them know when you have more information.

As a parent you want to keep your children safe, secure and cared for. Be sure that young children (ages 2-7) understand that they did not cause the illness in any way and provide reassurance. Let them know that this disease or diagnosis is different than a tummy ache, a cold or the flu.

Keep Routines

Young children have very little experience with illness therefore no reference to something much more serious. They will need help to understand that the treatment plans for the diagnosis are different than the “fixes” we give them when they do not feel well.

Take the time to describe to children how the illness will impact them and their day-to-day activities. If you are able, keep routines as normal as possible. This predictability allows children a sense of security during an uncertain time. As a parent you may need to rethink or choose who will be responsible for things that your loved one may not be able to do at this time. Reassure children that they will be cared for no matter what. Every family feels differently about sharing private matters; however it is important to communicate with other significant adults in your child's life. Teachers and caregivers who have a trusting relationship with your child can be a tremendous support for your family. 

On those days that seem more difficult, you may want to allow yourself to express your emotions in front of your children. For most children it is easy to follow their parents’ lead, it supports that it is all right to feel different ways. Children pick up on your energy, both positive and negative.

No one is ever fully prepared for the news of serious illness or a life-altering diagnosis. This journey can be a challenging and stressful time for parents and children alike. With help and understanding it can be worked through in a supportive manner.

Twila Perkinson is a Certified Child Life Specialist at Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center. She used information from Dr. Amanda Thompson, Children’s National Health System, Washington, D.C. for this story.

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