Tell Your Child a Family Member is Seriously Ill

By: Miles Hector

When a family member is ill, you eventually will have to tell your child, and that’s never going to be an easy discussion. Here are some tips for making it as easy as possible for you and your family.

Plan in Advance

Think about an appropriate time to have your conversation and think about where it should take place. Consider your body language and the tone of voice you will use.

Try roleplaying how you think the conversation will go with a partner or friend. This can give you an idea of the best way to phrase certain details. The more you prepare, the more likely the conversation will go how you would like. 

Make sure you can have your child’s full attention and be sure to use words and phrases that they can understand.

Get Everyone on the Same Page

If you are going to tell your child about an illness that affects a family member, make sure that key figures in your child’s life know what you are going to say. The last thing you want is for an older sibling or another family member to reveal more than what you had intended. Be ready to act as a team and use consistent language with your child so they can understand easily.

Keep it Simple

When explaining an illness, it can sometimes be tempting to include many details so that your child is fully aware of what is going on. Keeping things simple and getting to the point will make sure that your child knows the gravity of the situation.

“Mom is sick and will be in the hospital for a while, the doctors are doing everything to help her,” can be an opening statement to consider with younger children. Older, more mature children may be able to hear something like, “Your mother has breast cancer and she is going to the hospital to get tests to figure out how to treat it.”

Keeping things simple and using concise sentences is the best way to break the news. Just be sure to be compassionate. 

Be Transparent

If the illness a family member is facing is serious, you need to let your child know. Remain positive while doing your best to convey the severity of the illness.

If a family member is in cancer treatment, it can be important to warn them about outcomes like hair loss, weakness, vomiting, and perhaps the possibility of death.

It can be hard to have these conversations so consider enlisting the help of counsellors or family therapists. They may be able to help when you feel overwhelmed.

Be Open About Your Own Feelings

Staying strong for your children is important. However, if you are feeling worried or sad about the situation, it’s okay to be honest about it. Suppressing your emotions could lead to your children doing the same thing. Young children constantly watch for cues on how to emotionally react to challenging situations.

Talk to your child about how you feel and you may be surprised at how open they can be about their own feelings in return.

Open the Floor to Questions and Offer Support

Be sure to frame how the illness in the family may affect the daily life of your child. It may mean they will go to the hospital with you a few times a week, or help more around the house. Just be honest and encourage them to ask questions. You can work with your child to determine the best way they can support a family member and check in regularly.

Keep Communicating 

Make sure you are regularly checking back with your child, give them updates, see how they are feeling about the situation and reassure them that they are still going to be taken care of as your family supports the family member that is sick.