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Telling Children that a Parent is Ill

By: Elizabeth Grace - Updated: 23 Aug 2012 | comments*Discuss
Terminal Illness Losing A Parent

Children depend on their parents for everything, so losing a parent is often a child’s worst fear. Young children commonly experience bouts of separation anxiety when their parents merely leave the room, so telling kids that one of their parents is terminally ill must be done with great care and sensitivity.

Gentle Honesty

Children deserve honest information, especially from their parents. Kids learn about such important issues as trust and honesty in childhood, so parents must be sure to be forthright with kids, even when the subject matter is difficult and painful. While there is no need to eliminate children’s hopes that their ailing parent will somehow recover, they should not be given sugar-coated facts. Kids are surprisingly resilient, and when they are allowed to ask questions and encouraged to be open about their feelings, many can handle frightening news as well as adults.

Age Appropriate Information

When deciding how to talk to children about the illness of one of their parents, the age and maturity level of the children must be taken into consideration. Very young kids need only the simplest information and answers to any questions that they may have. Older children and teens are likely to require more detailed information and may have many questions, especially after they’ve had a bit of time to process the news. During the initial conversation with children of any age, kids should be made aware that they can return with their questions and concerns at any time and that they are free to express their emotions. When families are in turmoil, as often happens during times of serious illness, children can sometimes feel lost in the shuffle and may hesitate to ask for the help that they need, in hope of sparing family members any extra stress, so it is up to adults to see that the kids fare as well as possible.

Handling Children’s Questions

After finding out that one of their parents are terminally ill, most children will have a number of questions. The youngest family members may worry about how the illness (and even the death) will impact their daily lives. They are not being selfish; they are merely being children. Kids often thrive on routine, so factors that disrupt their daily lives can cause them considerable anxiety. Care should be taken to provide answers to their concerns, which may include such things as who will cook their meals, help them with schoolwork, and tuck them in at night.

Older kids are likely to ask the really difficult questions, some of which the adults in their lives may not themselves know the answers to. Matters of faith and the afterlife often come up as a result of such news, but since even adults may experience a crisis of faith when battling illness or anticipating the loss of a loved one, it may be hard for them to provide their children with the answers that they are seeking. Kids may also ask about specific treatments, possible side effects, and even for a time frame as to how long their parent has to live. When these questions are asked, they deserve answers, but sometimes, the answers are not readily available. When questions arise that parents are not prepared to answer, they should assure their kids that they will help them to do the necessary research or direct them to someone who may be able to offer assistance.

Alleviating Children’s Fears

Hearing the news that one of their parents is terminally ill is sure to bring forth a wide range of emotions in children, the greatest of which may be fear. While their fears are certainly well-founded, kids do need some reassurance that they will be helped through this process and that their feelings are perfectly normal. Crying is common, but not all children show such obvious symptoms that they are sad or worried. Instead, some may misbehave, others may isolate themselves, and some may be prone to angry outbursts. Kids will need extra attention and consideration not only while their parent is ill, but after the death, as well. Grieving begins with the first knowledge that the problem exists, but there is no set timetable for when it will end.

Each family must decide for themselves when and how much information to give to children regarding the illness of a parent, but it is never wise to keep quiet about the situation. Children are very perceptive and will certainly feel that something isn’t right, even if they do not know exactly what it is. Establishing an environment of openness and honesty will help them to not only process the initial news, but to cope with their ongoing feelings, as well.

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