How to talk to children about serious illness

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Posted 9th March 2021 by Lewis Murray

We’ve partnered with Winston’s Wish, a charity founded to help grieving and bereaved children. We’re creating a suite of articles around COVID-19, illness and death to help families prepare during these tough times. Our first article centres around how to talk to children about serious illnesses. It also explains how to say things in a way that children can understand, without making them feel overwhelmed.

Serious illness is something that can affect any person and will touch all our lives at some point. It could be from cancer, heart disease or currently, COVID-19. By reading this article, you’re taking the time to think and accept that serious illnesses and death exist. It may have an affect on you or your family one day and is something to definitely consider.

Serious illnesses – the hard truths

According to statistics provided by AIG, more than a third of people don’t believe they are at risk from the majority of illnesses that cause death. The majority of people (54%) believe they will not be affected by a stroke, cancer or heart disease. These are worrying statistics. If adults feel they will not get these types of illnesses, it is very likely that they are not taking the time to talk through it with their children.

It may feel like protecting a child’s feelings by not telling them the truth is the right thing to do. Making them aware of the effect serious illness can have on them and their loved ones may seem difficult. But if it isn’t discussed, it is most likely to be damaging them in the long run.

It is even more difficult if a family chooses not to accept the liability they may encounter through a serious illness. 3 out of 4 people could suffer from financial hardships if a serious illness took hold and meant they could no longer work (AIG, June 2019).

Serious illnesses can often be scary to younger children who don’t understand them

Should I tell my children that a family member or friend is seriously ill?

As explained above, attempting to protect a child from the truth of a situation may end up being more emotionally damaging in the long run. As well as serious illnesses, mental illnesses can have far-reaching effects for children. Anxiety and depression can even hinder and sabotage their development in the future.

1 in 6 children may have an underlying mental disorder brought on by the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic (NHS, July 2020). Fear and anxiety of uncertainty can have huge implications for developing young minds. It’s never been more important to discuss the facts about serious illness with children so they are fully aware. The harsh truths of serious illnesses may seem hard to explain in the beginning. Yet the process of children knowing the outcomes results in less fear over time.

Children know when something isn’t right

Children are far more aware than we often realise. They read the subtle gestures and body language of adults. So attempting to hide or reduce the impact of things that are worrying them probably won’t work.

We often don’t notice our children overhearing telephone conversations. They can pick up on the subject matter being spoken about. The problem with not revealing the truth is that misinterpretation of the facts may cause the mind to search for answers. Worry, anxiety and fear may then take hold in the child’s mind.

It’s also important to provide context to information that a child may have heard from different sources. The news, radio or television shows for example. The news can often be very negative, so providing context to the information may prevent anxiety from taking hold.

It’s important for children to know that they can come to you if they need help or want to talk. They look to their parents or carers to provide truth and honesty. This will mean that they do not feel alone and isolated with no-one to turn to should anxiety and worry build in their minds.

How should I tell my child that someone is seriously ill?

This depends entirely on the age of the child – as you can imagine, children don’t just have a physical age – they have a developmental stage, too. You might know this as emotional intelligence. It is how aware a child is of their emotions and how it can influence their approach to certain difficult times. The younger a child, generally the less emotionally intelligent they are.

The methods used to talk to children about bad news should be different based on their emotional intelligence. This means the level of understanding can vary from child to child and is based on their stage of development.

Some factors to consider in your approach to speaking with your child are:

  • How severe the serious illness is (is it terminal cancer, coronavirus or have they had a stroke or heart attack perhaps?)
  • The child’s age and emotional intelligence (do they understand what is happening around them? Have they grasped the concept of life and death?)
  • If the child has experienced grief, loss or illness in the past (have they lost a grandparent or pet? Did they or someone they know have a severe illness?)

Once you have determined answers to the above, the most important things to tell the child are:

  • That someone they know or are close to has a serious illness
  • The name of the illness that the person has
  • What happens when someone has the illness and how it affects them (How does it affect their body? What treatments are there at the hospital, etc?)

It could be a good idea to speak with your child outside in a calm and neutral environment

How do I know if my child understands what’s happening?

Once you have shared the information that someone is seriously ill, it’s important to ask fact-finding questions. This will show if your child shows a suitable level of understanding. It can also help you know what their feelings and emotions are. For example, you can ask them what they think is happening and what it means for the loved one’s situation.

The first discussion around the illness is the first part of the puzzle. Take your time to build up the bigger picture. Make sure to piece it together slowly, adding more information as time goes on and when you feel it appropriate. Your child may have questions for you depending on their understanding and feelings.

Take your time during this process. Young children can often become distressed hearing that a loved one isn’t well. Their worries and feelings can affect their emotions wildly. Allowing smaller pieces of information to sink in is often necessary.

What words do I use to tell my child that someone is very ill?

This will be the hardest part to figure out. Every child is different and understand things in a variety of ways. Starting with the answers to the questions above will help. Knowing your child’s emotional intelligence will help with the words you use.

As well as the words you choose, it’s also important to set the right scene. Choosing a quiet, calm and safe space to tell the news is just as vital as the words. Sometimes it’s right to choose somewhere outside and tranquil. This will lessen the impact of the blow of bad news.

Delivering bad news is never easy, and it’s something that you don’t want to do without some practice. Spend some time with your partner or a family member and rehearse what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. If you can, do a little bit of research about the serious illness in question. This will mean you’re well-informed and have the knowledge to answer any questions that your child might have. If you can’t answer their questions there and then, that’s ok too! Make sure you let them know that you don’t currently know the answer but once you have more information that you’ll share it with them.

How might a child react to being told someone is really ill?

Being prepared and ready for any outcome often isn’t possible. Grief and confusion that stems from hearing negative news isn’t often predictable. The short answer is that every child is different and could react in a different way. This can manifest itself in many ways: grief, anger, sadness, confusion or even no reaction at all.

Don’t be shocked if your child asks if they can go outside to play or turn on the TV. Sometimes they cannot fully grasp the severity of the situation and it needs to be done in stages. If this happens, bring up the illness from time to time. That way it slowly sinks in. This also presents an opportunity for children to ask questions. They may not feel comfortable asking questions without the opportunity being available to them.

Remember to take care of yourself – you’re not invulnerable

These moments in life can be very difficult, not only for your loved ones but for you, the parents too. Make sure you take the time to practice self-care. Pay attention to what your feelings are saying to you and remember to take time-out if required. Daily routines are very important and when these are interrupted, it can wreak havoc on families and how they interact.

It’s always difficult when kids are involved. Could other adults or parents, like a neighbour or family member, look after your children for a short time? This will give you a bit of space to reflect and re-align yourself. Taking care of others is part-and-parcel of what being a parent is about. But it’s important that you also spend some time on yourself because if you don’t, how are you going to be able to help somebody else?

There is support available to you – you are not alone

Don’t forget to get help if you need to – there is absolutely no shame in needing a hand when the going gets tough and your emotions are stronger. Winston’s Wish is an amazing charity that can provide support and wellbeing advice to families. They can help during trying times and support bereaved children and families. If you want to learn more about supporting your children through a tough time, you can find more information in this Winston’s Wish blog article.

If you have been affected by this article because you don’t have any provisions in place should the worst happen, don’t panic. Protect Line are one of the UK’s largest life insurance brokers and can help you find life insurance or critical illness cover that’s right for you. Check out our Ultimate Guide to Life Insurance if you want to learn more.