Explaining that someone has a life-limiting illness to a child or teen can feel overwhelming and daunting. These tips may help you have that hard conversation and know how to better support them during the challenges of living with a family member who has an advanced serious illness.
Begin the conversation. Giving children difficult news is not an easy task, though your child will likely have already sensed that something has shifted within the family. While there is never a “perfect time” to have these conversations, waiting can lead to hurried exchanges that provide too little information or that comes too late in the illness for children to best cope and be included in the experience. Find a time that leaves ample space for questions, reactions, and clarification.
Use open, honest, and clear communication. Be honest and give clear accurate and information. Euphemisms like “won’t be here much longer” or “passing on” can be confusing. Use the words “will die from” or “dying” when speaking to children and teens. Name the disease. Young children need basic concrete information regarding the illness, what will happen in the immediate future, and specifics about how their care and routine will be maintained. Adolescents and teens appreciate having more detailed information, especially as the family member’s health declines.
Validate feelings and thoughts.
It is important to listen to a child’s responses without interrupting or minimizing fears. Children often worry that they can catch the disease, or that they either caused or in some way contributed to their family member’s life-limiting illness. You can validate their experience by sharing similar feelings/thoughts, affirming that each reaction is normal, and giving them permission to express those feelings and thoughts.
Model being okay with not knowing. Be honest if you don’t have an answer. It’s okay to not know. Validate that it’s important to ask questions even when there are no answers.
Provide structure and routine. Life is constantly changing and often seems very unstable when a family member has an advanced serious illness. Providing structure with flexibility will help a child regain some sense of safety and control.
Provide time to be a kid/teen. It’s important for your child to spend time with and play with their peers. This invaluable time provides your child some normalcy, a physical outlet, social connection, and can be a supportive coping strategy when your child is overwhelmed with all the other changes that are occurring at this time.
Find additional resources and support at dougy.org/pathways.