What to say and how to say it: Talking to your child after the diagnosis of a serious physical illne
This post is a little late, seeing how September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, but we all know cancer and other major childhood illnesses affect kiddos year round, so I hope it’s still useful.
Learning your child has been diagnosed with a serious physical illness can be both heartbreaking and extremely stressful for both parents and children. While each member of a family may cope and respond differently to this difficult news, it is first and foremost important to clarify and discuss physical illness with your sick child. Children are intuitive and resourceful, and in most cases, they have a pretty good idea that something is wrong with their health, even if parents attempt to keep their diagnosis a secret. Rather than keeping secrets or offering sugar-coated information, research suggests talking openly and honestly with sick children increases their feeling of capability, control, and overall sense of well-being, which leads to more positive recovery outcomes. That being said, here are a few simple tips to guide your discussion:
Tips for talking to your child about his/her diagnosis:
Remember that nonverbal communication is key
Your tone of voice, body language and posture, and facial expressions communicate so much information! If you appear scared and anxious, your child will pick up on your feelings. Use a calm, clear, tone of voice and a relaxed body posture with direct eye contact. Practice and role-play with close friends, extended family, or medical staff before talking to your child to better prepare you for this tough talk.
Talk with your child’s doctor before talking to your child
Ask your child’s doctor to describe your child’s illness and diagnosis in simple, understandable terms. Make sure you have a thorough understanding of your child’s condition so you can accurately and competently answer any questions your child may have. Ask the doctor for kid-friendly pamphlets or brochures about your child’s illness.
Ask your child what information he/she already knows
Find out what your child already knows or thinks he/she knows. Gently, but confidently, assuage any misconceptions. Use honest and clear explanations to describe your child’s diagnosis in a manner that is appropriate to their level of understanding and development. Use words, pictures, and metaphors that your child is comfortable and familiar with to communicate understanding.
Listen to your child’s feelings and encourage open communication
Encourage your child to discuss his/her questions, concerns, and feelings with you and the doctor. Ask your child questions about how he/she is feeling and what fears or worries he/she is experiencing. If your child is having difficulty expressing feelings with words, encourage drawing, painting, puppet shows, and journaling. Read story books about other children diagnosed with serious physical illness. However, if your child does not want to immediately talk about his/her diagnosis, respect and honor this request. Continue to encourage open communication and support.
Tackling this discussion is no easy task; in fact, it may initially be easier to avoid discussing your child’s physical illness altogether. However, if you chose this route you are bound to experience a multitude of difficulties as the illness and time progress. Model open, honest, and age-appropriate conversation, and your child will thank you in the long-run.