How to talk to children about terminal illness

By Drum Digital
12 May 2014

An American teen and her terminally ill mother were recently in international news when her high school allowed a very emotional graduation ceremony to be held at her mom’s death bed. Here’s some advice for helping your children deal with the terminal illness of a loved one.

An American teen and her terminally ill mother were recently in international news when her high school allowed a very emotional graduation ceremony to be held at her mom’s death bed. Megan Sugg feared her mom wouldn’t live to see her graduate at the official ceremony in June and a private ceremony was held on Thursday 8 May. Her mom, Darlene, died two days later. Read more here.

When you or a member of your family is diagnosed with a serious or terminal illness there’s an unavoidable impact on the family. Many parents say they’re almost more worried about how to tell their children than about the illness itself. Here’s some advice to help you talk to children about terminal illness.

Silence causes anxiety

Children are sensitive to emotional moods and the nonverbal communication of the adults around them. They often sense when a parent is upset, even when the parent thinks the child is unaware of it. If you don’t talk to them about why you’re upset their imaginations may run riot and cause great anxiety. They might also blame themselves for the fact you’re upset.

Choose the right time

Talking to your children about serious illness, especially if you’re the patient, isn’t easy or pleasant. But it’s not a good idea to put off such a discussion for too long. Try to find a time when you’re calm. Starting such a discussion when you’re upset can have bad results. Allow enough time for your children to ask questions – 10 minutes before the kids have to leave for school isn’t the best time.

Know your children and explain as much as you can

How much you explain will depend on your children’s age and stage of development. But children of any age should be allowed to ask questions and express their feelings. Give your children as much information as they can deal with. You’ll be able to determine your children’s ability to deal with information by being attuned to their emotional reactions.

Be honest

Don’t think you’re doing your children a favour by lying about the severity of the illness. Saying, “I don’t know,” is an acceptable answer if it’s the truth. It’s important not to make promises. For example, don’t say the person your children love won’t die. Rather explain that most people live a long life and that when they become ill there are ways in which you can try to help them and that’s what will now happen.

What will happen to the patient?

It’s important to explain – especially to younger children – how the treatment will affect the patient. This will prevent them becoming confused when they witness the symptoms. In the case of chemotherapy it’s good to explain in a concrete way (with pictures if necessary) the purpose of chemotherapy. Also explain the patient will feel tired and nauseous, sleep a lot and possibly lose hair.

With teenagers it’s important not to oversimplify your explanation. Give more detail of your diagnosis and treatment. You can even take your children for a talk with your doctor if you think it will be beneficial.

How are children affected?

Terminal illness will affect the family routine no matter how hard you try to keep things “normal”. If your children are unprepared for changes in routine their state of mind and behaviour may be affected. Be practical when talking to them about the illness. For example, say, “Daddy will be very tired when he comes back from the hospital and may not be able to play with you any more.” Or, “Mommy will have to sleep more than usual so the lady next door will be dropping you off at school.”

You can talk in greater detail to teenagers about the impact of the diagnosis and treatment on their lives – for example, the financial implications, and that they may have to shoulder more responsibilities in and around the house.

One serious talk isn’t enough

Children need time to process what you’ve told them. Regularly make opportunities to discuss the issue. Children may be afraid to ask questions and may need you to bring up the subject again after they’ve had time to think about what you’ve already told them.

-Suzaan Hauman


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