How to Talk to Your Child About
By Lindsey Pruett-Hornbaker, MA for PBS Kids
When Jose Nolivos’ son Mateo was five years old, he became dangerously sick with a severe illness that the doctors couldn’t pinpoint. “We didn’t know what was wrong. We didn’t think Mateo would survive,” he shares. “It was devastating.”
Mateo was later diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia and spent a month in the hospital before going home.
As a parent, Nolivos faced the reality of getting through the crisis himself while also comforting his other children and helping them understand what was happening to Mateo. It was important to him to tell Mateo’s two young siblings what was going on in a way that they could understand. Nolivos took breaks from the hospital room to take them for walks, where he explained in simple terms that their brother was sick and that the doctors were working to help him get better.
Persha Gregg’s family life was turned upside down when she was diagnosed with lupus, an incurable autoimmune disease that affects nearly every aspect of her life. “Early on in my diagnosis, it was really hard and scary for all of us,” she says. Gregg couldn’t tell her children that she would someday get better. “The reality right now is that this will be a part of our lives for good,” she says. With her kids, ages 10 and 14, she focuses on acknowledging that her illness is tough and scary, while also discussing the ways she is fighting to stay well and reflecting on all they’ve overcome as a family. “I’ve found that it puts us more at ease to have that safe space to be open and vulnerable in our conversations.”
When a serious illness occurs, we may be tempted to downplay it or avoid discussing it with our kids altogether. But this can cause more stress and worry for everyone. The American Psychological Association encourages caregivers not to shield children from scary things like illness. Instead, they advise talking to them about what’s happening in ways that help them feel safe and secure.
For both Nolivos and Gregg, having a strong support system has been critical. Nolivos says knowing his other children were safe and cared for by family members during Mateo’s illness was important. It not only allowed him to care for Mateo, but it gave him space to have hard conversations with all of his kids, too. Gregg and her family find strength in family members, close friends, and their faith community. Having a trusted community who can help tend to your own fears and feelings (and sometimes your kids!) as a result of serious illness can help you be more present for conversations with your kids, and more capable of helping them manage their own feelings.
Connect to Familiar Experiences
Children may be confused about what is happening, so it is important to take the time to fill in the gaps. Alison Miller, a developmental psychologist and professor of health behavior and health education in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, says, “After sharing the basic facts, ask the child if they have any questions. It’s OK to say, ‘I don’t know’ if you don’t know the answer.”
Connecting to feelings is very important too. Dr. Miller notes it is important to ask children how they are feeling and to ask them to make connections to times they’ve felt similarly. “If they want to talk further, you can ask the child to think about a time when they felt worried or sad about something else (for example, the first day of school), and what made them feel better at that time,” suggests Dr. Miller. “Then you can make a plan for how to apply those strategies to this situation—like talking about how they’re feeling, spending time together, or going for a walk. It’s also important to reassure the child that it’s okay if they don’t have any questions now, but that they can come to you to talk about this whenever they want to.”
Answer Questions Honestly and Simply
When it comes to their own illness or someone else’s, your child may have questions, and they might be hard ones. Honesty is important—it lets our kids know they can trust us. You don’t need to give details that may be too complicated or overwhelming for your child.
You can provide your child with answers that are simple and clear. The older your child is, the more they may be able to process and understand. And if you don’t know the answer, you can be honest about that, too.
Dr. Miller suggests finding “a time when you and your child can focus, connect, and recover, and a place where the child feels safe. This could be during a quiet activity at home, for example.” She notes that sharing can be complicated and emotional, for both you and the child, and that’s okay! She says, “To stay calmer during the conversation with your child, it can help to run through what you’re planning to say in advance, perhaps even with someone else, so that you can model for the child that you have these feelings but are doing okay.” This conversation can also be an ongoing one. Dr. Miller reminds us that “your child may have questions or show emotional responses at the time, but these may also come later so it’s also important to let them know you’re open to talking whenever they want to.”
Normalize Big Feelings
It’s common for a child to have a wide range of feelings about being sick or having a sick loved one. Grief, anger, numbness, confusion, and sadness may come and go as you learn to live with the reality of a diagnosis. You can help your child manage these big feelings by sharing how you manage your own, and by letting them know these feelings are normal. Let your child know that you’re there for them, and they are safe to share their feelings with you. Support your child in finding a way to feel calm and safe, even if they feel upset.
What You Can Do
Often, illness isn’t something we can prevent or control, and that can leave kids scared and powerless. There’s nothing a child can do to cure themself or their sick loved one, but there are many impactful things they can do. If a friend or family member is ill, young children can make cards, help deliver food, or create a funny video to send and lift their loved one’s spirits.
Because Gregg’s children are older, they can help with larger tasks. She talks to them about ways they can support her when she’s not feeling well, like helping with household chores and fixing themselves simple meals. “It makes them feel good to know that they are helping you,” Gregg says. It is also important to remind them of your support system and to know they are not the only ones responsible for helping out.
Gregg’s family also has an open conversation policy. “We talk about being thankful for the many things I am still able to do and the experiences we have together because there was a time when I was not well enough to do basic things. We talk about how I can use my illness for good and to inspire others,” she says. “I want to show that living with a chronic illness is not just a hopeless struggle to survive, but that you can thrive and have an impactful and fulfilling life.”
To learn more about talking about scary things, like illness, watch the “PBS KIDS Talk About Scary Things” video.