Children often know far more than we give them credit for. They might still be learning social cues and may not be able to express what they have learnt but they certainly pick up a lot of information from you and those around you. This is why it is really important that when things go wrong, you don’t assume that they are blissfully unaware – you need to learn to talk about it.
Discussing serious illnesses can be really difficult amongst adults but children will be more receptive than you might think. This doesn’t necessarily make it easier to answer questions like, what is cancer or will you get better? However, it does mean that you can trust your kids to take on more information than you might think and then help them deal with their natural emotional responses.
Do Your Research
Before you start talking about an illness, whether it is you who is ill or someone else, you should do some research. Sometimes children catch you unawares with their questions but this doesn’t mean that you can’t postpone a conversation and do a bit of reading first!
Choose reliable sources such as NICE, the NHS website and WebMD for your research. These sites can help you find details about the illness you are researching as well as offering more simplified explanations. Remember, this research is just for you to have a good understanding before you start talking and you don’t need to relay every single detail you discover.
Most anxiety is caused by uncertainty. Trying to hide facts from your children or evading their questions can quickly cause uncertainty, which is why being honest is always best. It might be difficult to speak honestly, especially if you have not fully accepted the illness yourself. However, a direct answer without trying to play things down or being vague can go a long way.
However, there is always an age-appropriate version of the truth you can tell. The best way to figure out what this is is to allow your child to lead the conversation. Allow them to ask questions and answer with the information they need. Offer reassurance where you can but make sure that you remain realistic. If you don’t know the answer to a difficult question, just say so.
Some questions don’t have easy answers and all you can do is offer support and love. Though you may not be able to protect your children from life, you can keep your family safe in a number of ways and showing your support and love is really important. As ever, this starts with listening to your children and acknowledging their concern.
Spending time together and tolerating lots of questions is the best way to show your support. Allow them to express their emotions in a safe environment and share your own feelings too. Very young children may encounter complex feelings that they are not familiar with so it’s important that you give them time to come to terms with a lot of new information.
Talking about serious illness is never easy but fostering an open and honest approach will guide the whole family through a difficult time. Support each other.