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How do I explain serious illness to children?

It’s natural to want to protect children and young people from the harsh realities of things like serious illness. However, these things are part of life – leaving them in the dark may lead to children worrying even more. Here are some ideas for how to approach this difficult conversation.

Opening up the conversation

Quite often, children will know that something has changed or is wrong. It’s important to lead the conversation to reduce their potential worry and so they feel comfortable asking questions in the future.

Kids pick up a lot from TV and films, so they may be more aware of illness and death than you realise. The idea of death may even have arisen with bees or other insects in the house, or with the passing of a family pet. You can draw on these experiences to help them identify what is going on and make comparisons. Be clear and honest. Keep it simple. Relying on euphemisms may add to the confusion they feel.

Listen and observe

When you first introduce the topic of a family member or friend being sick, observe how the child reacts. Depending on their age and personality, reactions may vary. Take their lead in how to continue the conversation. 

Allow them to ask questions and answer them as honestly as possible. Ask them what they know about the situation already, too. Children often pick up more than adults realise, and they may have some misconceptions about the specific situation or sickness in general that need to be cleared up by you.

Managing expectations

If a family member is undergoing treatment, they may be less active and more tired. Visits may be reduced or changed, for example the child may see their grandparent less or in the hospital. Prepare them for this and be honest about the reasons it’s happening. 

Providing children with this information reduces their fear of the unknown and lessens the likelihood of their imagination filling in the blanks. The key thing to bear in mind is taking cues from the child themselves. Pace information in a way that suits them and make sure they feel comfortable talking to you and asking questions about what lies ahead.

For more articles on childhood and family health, click here.