Someone I Love is Sick: Helping a Child Cope With The Illness of a Family Member

By Colleen Brunetti, M.Ed., C.H.C
 
Family with a sick childWhen a loved one is critically ill, your child may have a lot of questions, or need some extra support around understanding what is going on. Be it a parent, sibling, grandparent, or extended family member, chances are high that your child is going to have some worries and fears that may need to be addressed.

How you discuss the illness of a family member with your child depends a great deal on how old the child is and what they are ready to handle from a developmental or maturity standpoint.

There are a few general guidelines for all ages.
 
Things to do:

Keep the lines of communication open: Even if you need to keep certain details from your child, or want to limit their exposure to something, know that little ears hear big things and that children sense when things are amiss.  You can invite conversation by saying things like, “Do you have any questions about Mommy’s doctor visits?” Or, “You know Grandpa is very sick. Do you want to ask me anything about that?”

Give your child a task: A job to help the loved one feel better is the perfect way to build compassion and empower the child in a situation that can make anyone feel a bit helpless. Help them create a get-well card or an activity box of books and music for the hospital. With technology these days, your child could even record a special greeting or song and send it virtually.
 
Things Not to Do:

Don’t make promises that you can’t keep: Don’t promise, “Everything will be fine” if it might not be. It’s okay to let real fears be real – it is how you address them that matters

Don’t offer more than they are ready for:  As noted above, let your child lead the conversation, but don’t put ideas in their heads. They don’t need to know about prognosis or painful treatments. Children have a knack for asking the questions they are ready to hear the answers to. If you’re unsure, ask a trusted child development expert, such as a pediatrician or teacher for some ideas on age-appropriate responses.

 

Here is a list of quick tips by age (Originally published by the author specifically for parents, full document HERE)
 
Ages 0 – 3

 

  • Keep to normal routine, as much as possible. Familiar surroundings and consistency mean security.
  • Use a normal voice and maintain composure to reassure a toddler.
  • Any changes in routine should be explained to the child in terms of how it will affect them. This explanation should come prior to the change if possible. For example, “Mommy feels bad today and needs to take a nap, so she can’t play with you right now.”
  • Give lots of love and attention. Don’t stop, even if they seem inconsolable. Hugs are wonderfully reassuring to small children

 

Ages 3 – 5

 

  • Small children need lots of hugs when there is an illness/disease in the family. They need extra love and attention and reassurance that they will be cared for.
  • Matter-of-fact and brief answers to questions are important. Your feelings should be shared in a simplified manner. For example, “I miss Daddy,” or “I hurt inside.”
  • Encourage physical activity, drawing, and music to help the child express their own emotions.
  • If the parent is hospitalized, it helps to keep a few of the child’s toys and books at the hospital for visitations.

 
Ages 5 – 9

 

  • Early school age children need gentle honesty. If they don’t receive clear explanations about what is happening with their parent’s illness or treatment, they will make sense of it by using their imagination and incorrect information.
  • Ask children frequently if they have any questions. They may need many invitations to talk before they feel comfortable voicing a concern. If kids aren’t ready to talk, that’s ok too.
  • Ask the child to explain back to you what is happening to the parent who is sick. This will help you know what they comprehend and help you correct any misconceptions the child may have.
  • Reassure children they will be cared for and that it is normal to feel angry or afraid.
  • Show your feelings to encourage them to share theirs. A sad movie, story, or song can encourage reluctant children to express their feelings.
  • Unless the child asks for more time with a parent in the hospital, keep hospital visits brief.

 
Ages 9 – 12

 

  • Children at this age can assume additional responsibilities but they shouldn’t be overloaded. Don’t let the child assume the role of either parent.
  • Preteens might seem “selfish” about the way the illness affects them. Try to be patient with them. Instead of punishing children, talk with them.
  • Show affection. Model ways for children to deal with feelings and worries.
  • Preteens want specific information about prognosis and treatment. Answer their questions and promise them more information as it becomes available.
  • Many children will use the Internet to find more information. This can be scary if the information is negative or too technical. Be aware of where they are gathering their information.
  • Offer to talk to their friends and their friends’ parents to explain what is happening.
  • Keep appropriate people at your child’s school informed about your situation so they can help you with any behavior changes that occur.

 
Ages 13 – 18

 

  • Because people outside the family are so important to them, teens usually cope better than younger children with a seriously ill parent.
  • Be aware that teens are feeling torn between a desire to be with their friends and with their sick parent.
  • Encourage them to keep up with as many normal social activities as possible.
  • Friends are an important source of support for teens.
  • Avoid making your teen assume adult roles but involve them in some decision-making activities, too.
  • Offer to talk to their friends and their friends’ parents to explain what is happening.