Perspective | How to talk to your child about your serious illness

It’s never easy for a parent to tell their children they have a serious illness, no matter how old the kids are. There’s a fine line between frightening them unnecessarily and arming them with the pertinent details of not only your illness but how it’s going to affect you and them.

You know your children best and should lean on that knowledge to plan the conversation ahead of time. Take into account your symptoms, surgeries and recovery time when talking to them, as some illnesses are serious but last only a short time, while others are chronic or life-threatening. Have answers ready for the most obvious questions. If you are able to answer confidently, and without hesitation, it will assure them you know what you’re talking about. And if you seem confused and anxious, they will respond in kind. Consider including a grandma, aunt, uncle or someone special in their lives on the conversation, to comfort them as you relay your information.

I had to tell my 8- and 10-year-old boys that I was in complete kidney failure and would be on dialysis until a kidney became available for transplant. At the time, the wait on the National Donor List was five years, which is exactly how long it took for me to be matched to a donor and receive a transplant.

I’m sharing how I broached the subject with my sons in the hopes of giving others some ideas that may make it easier. Depending on your children’s ages, you can adapt these suggestions accordingly.

Set aside as much uninterrupted time as possible. Children react in different ways and you want ample time to deal with whatever emotions may surface. After dinner is a good time, since they are often calmer after eating and winding down for the evening.

Children pick up on your energy. If possible, wait until you have had time to digest and process the news so you can remain calm.

Speak in terms they can understand. Try not to interject too much medical terminology. You can also use this time to introduce and explain some terms they may be hearing in relation to your illness.

Consider the timing of your news and how it may affect other areas of their lives. Is it near a holiday? Do any of them have tests coming up at school or a big sporting event? If possible, wait until any major challenges are over.

Allow them to ask questions. Answer with age-appropriate responses, staying focused on the specific question at hand. Including more details than necessary can be overwhelming for kids.

Ask them questions. How do you think this will change things here at home? At school? Ask for their suggestions on how to make things easier so they feel like they’re part of the conversation and the process. Inclusion is important and helps keep dialogue flowing.

Don’t hide your feelings. While you certainly don’t want to frighten your children, you do want them to know there are times when you may feel sad or particularly tired, and times you may even cry. Let them comfort you. It’s important for them to feel they are active participants in your life, and nothing warms a child’s heart more than knowing they’ve helped you feel better.

A few suggestions for enlisting outside support:

• You may want to inform your children’s teachers of your circumstances. If you wish to keep the specifics private, it can be helpful to at least let them know there is a challenging time coming so they can keep a close eye on how your children are doing at school.

• If your children are under age 10, try to arrange play dates at their friends’ houses when possible. This allows them time to be kids and run off energy, and gives you time to focus on yourself or things you need to get done.

• Involve extended family and friends as much as you can. The bigger the support group, the easier everything will be. Overnight stays with family or close friends gives them “special” time where attention is focused only on them.

You’re going to have lots of chances to talk to your kids about your illness, but telling them the news is difficult. Depending on how you handle it, it will allow your children to understand without being too frightened or upset. There may be tears, there may be tantrums, there may be hugs and kisses. Most likely, there will be a combination of all these reactions. If you are as honest as you feel you can be, and you remain calm and surround them with love, though, it will turn out okay.

Mary McLaurine is a writer and poet living happily ever after in Maryland.  Follow her on Twitter @Im_Sassy_Lassie.

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