therapist and patient

Helping Children Cope When a Loved One Has a Serious Illness

When a severe illness harms a member of the family, it can be hard for everyone to take in, especially for the children who can barely understand it.

A family member’s serious illness can impact everyone around them, especially the ones they are closest to. Whether it’s a grandparent going into palliative care because of cancer or a sibling that is diagnosed with a debilitating disease, it can be challenging to take the news yourself–even more so when you relay it to your young ones.

Here are the best ways to break the news to your children and help them cope with the new reality that their loved one is seriously sick:

Don’t try to hide it for too long

Children notice changes in the behavior of the people around them, even when we think they are not paying attention. As a parent, it’s our first instinct to protect our kids from the pain of hearing such sad news, but not telling them–or hiding it from them for too long–can make matters worse. When they see tearful eyes or overhear hurried conversations without knowing what’s going on, it can cause stress, anxiety, and fear.

Don’t take too much time preparing to tell your kids about the news. The sooner you do it, the earlier you can start coping as a family.

Tell them in a way that they can understand

women

Help children understand their loved one’s illness by explaining it in a way that they know. Start by calling the illness by its actual name–no matter how hard it might be for you to hear–to familiarize them with it. Not calling the disease by its name can make it taboo in their eyes, give it the power to become something to be feared or avoided.

Then, find out how you can help your kids understand the illness depending on their age. Look for online sources that break the sickness down to a basic explanation, specifically designed to educate children. Use visual aids if you can, and as much as possible, answer their questions honestly and accurately. If you’re not sure about the answer, tell them you’re going to get back to them on that instead of making something up.

Prepare them for the changes that will come

It’s normal for children to worry about how their loved one’s illness will impact their life. Routines play a large part in helping children feel safe, and if something is to disrupt that, it can cause even more stress and anxiety.

After breaking the news to your children and letting them absorb it or a while, let them know about the changes that they can expect–both the definite and the indefinite. Start with the definite changes and plan a new routine around those. Doing this will help ease their anxiety and make them feel secure. After that, let them know about the indefinite changes like maybe someone else is going to pick them up forms school from time to time or that a parent might have to go to the hospital.

The serious illness of a loved one can be hard on the entire family. While you are absorbing the news and comforting other family members, take the time to help your children understand and cope with the new reality as well.

Scroll to Top