No matter where in the world you are from, you will have encountered the subject of serious illness in the past year. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it a difficult subject to avoid for any person; the news, media reporting, and our conversations with our loved ones have all landed on the topic one way or another throughout the past eighteen months.
But of course, the subject of serious illness goes beyond COVID-19. Cancer rates are on the rise, as well as other serious illnesses – although it isn’t nice to think about it, many families are grappling with serious illnesses in their lives right now.
When you have children, you might want to shield them from the devastation of dealing with a serious illness in the family. No child, however, remains oblivious to these things forever. You need to know how to talk to Kids About Serious illness when the time comes to have a conversation.
In this post, you’ll learn tools with which to speak more freely with your children about the subject of illness.
Keep calm & carry on…
For children, one of the most worrying things is seeing their parents in distress. As a child, you assume that your parents have everything under control – if there’s a problem, your parents will fix it. So in a child’s mind, seeing their parents in distress means something is very wrong. This can affect them emotionally, causing them to become withdrawn or anxious.
When dealing with a serious illness in the family, either in the immediate family unit or in the extended family such as grandparents, the crucial thing is to stay calm. Of course, you are going to be stressed, upset, and worried, but projecting those fears onto your child won’t help them understand what’s going on, let alone process it.
We are only human, and nobody can remain perfectly calm all the time. If you become upset in front of your child, it’s not going to ruin anything – just try to explain to them what is going on, and why you are upset. However, on the whole, it is important to project an air of calm authority when dealing with a family illness. You can’t control the outcome, but you can control how you deal with it at the moment.
Therefore, when speaking with your child about a serious illness, you should explain rationally and reasonably what the illness is, and how it might affect a person. Avoid using dramatic language or graphic details, as this will only ignite a child’s imagination and cause them to think about the worst-case scenario. Make sure you are always there for your child if they get upset, and try to soothe their worries and distract them from overthinking the situation.
Make it visual with helpful diagrams
A child’s world is very small, and if they have never heard of this specific illness before, they won’t know what it means. To an adult, a word like ‘cancer’ has all sorts of connotations, but to a child, it’s just another word that grown-ups use with a worried face.
If somebody you and your child knows is seriously ill and you want to talk to your child about it, you might find it helpful to give them a visual aid. Of course, you don’t want to show them graphic pictures on the internet that will scare them! Instead, draw a child-friendly picture to help them get their head around what is actually wrong, without giving them a reason to be afraid.
For example, if a child’s grandparent has been diagnosed with lung cancer, a child may be inquisitive about what that means. Drawing a picture of Grandpa and circling his lung area, explaining that it’s hard for Grandpa to breathe sometimes, will make your child feel like they are “in the know” without being too clued in, and therefore too worried.
Let them in on the process (to some extent).
If you or someone in your immediate family is experiencing a serious illness, you can’t hide it from your kids forever. At the end of the day, they need to be let in on the secret. Your family life might change for a time, and your priorities may shift when one family member has greater care needs than usual. Your children will need to adapt to this, so they can’t be shut out of the process of going through and recovering from a serious illness.
Here are some ways to let your kids in on the process of going through an illness, without over-involving them. Striking the balance is extremely difficult, but there are ways you can get it right.
- Show them healed scars, and explain where they came from in a positive way.
If you or someone in your family has been through a surgery, your child might be very curious about it. What happens in surgery? What happens afterward? By showing your child healed surgery scars and talking about them in a positive way, you will give your child a less fearful approach to hospitals and illness. For example, by saying “This is how the doctor made Mummy better,” the scars won’t be viewed as something scary, but as something great.
Similarly, if you have experienced breast surgery and are being given a new 3-D Nipple, for example, don’t be afraid to show your child what this new part of your body looks like! Their fascination is only natural, so don’t make it taboo, which will only cause them to question their relationship to their own body in the future.
- Explain where you are going if you spend time in the hospital.
If the ill person needs to spend time in hospital, either for surgery or for observation, make sure you explain where you are going and why. You don’t need to include any scary details, but just knowing where the person is and who will be taking care of them will give your child the peace of mind they need.
Serious illness is a scary subject for a person of any age, but for a child, it needs to be approached with particular care and caution. Use this guide to help you discuss this subject with openness and calm with your kids, so you can get through the hard times more easily as a family.