Talking With Kids About a Terminal Illness

Reviewed Feb 16, 2016

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Summary

  • Ask the child what she understands about the illness.
  • Let the child know that he can talk with you at any time.

There are few things in life more heart-wrenching than talking with a child about a parent’s terminal illness. It is not something that a parent can ever really prepare for. As a result, many avoid the subject and delay the initial conversation. It’s not hard to understand why parents do this.

The subject of death is frightening and a cause of great distress to children, so it is easy to think that what the child doesn’t know won’t hurt him.

In fact, it can be more harmful for the child to feel the undercurrents of stress, sadness, secrecy and anxiety within his family without being included in what is happening. Kids have amazing imaginations and, in the absence of truth, will piece together disparate observations and feelings. They will create scenarios or fantasies that are wrought with fear, misconception or denial.

In addition, children depend on their parents to bring security and order into their lives and to help them understand how life works. Parents must not shy away from their role as teacher and comforter—even in difficult times.

The initial conversation

Before you sit down to talk with a child, have a general sense of what you want to say and how you are going to say it. Anticipate the questions she might ask and also what her emotional response may be. Don’t be surprised if the initial conversation is much briefer than you predicted.

A good way to begin this conversation is to ask the child what she senses or understands about her parent’s illness. Allow the child to speak freely and don’t correct her until she has finished her thoughts. Remember that this conversation will set the standard for future conversations you will need to have, so handle her misconceptions gently.

Medical details, times and dates are usually not as important as your ability to listen and comfort. Talk to a child in a calm and gentle way, and resist the temptation to give too much information. Most pre-adolescent children are satisfied with basic information.

Watch your child’s nonverbal communication and note any confusion or distress. Let your child express feelings freely. It is OK for you to express your sadness to the degree that you don’t lose control. Your child needs to see that you are also hurting, but he must also see that you have enough control to take care of him and yourself. Lastly, let him know that he can talk with you about anything at any time.

Your child’s emotional response

Children grieve in many ways, depending on their temperament, age and perception of support. A child may express sadness outwardly through crying or sobbing, or inwardly by withdrawal and quietness.  Emotional pain is also expressed as physical or behavioral changes such as poor sleeping or eating patterns, loss of concentration, or physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches. Older children and teens may lash out in anger as a way of dealing with their pain.

There is really no nice way for a child to deal with the loss of a parent. It is a life-changing event that he will never forget.

An emotional balancing act

Dealing with the loss of one’s mate is devastating, but even more so when children are involved. Coping with your own grief while trying to be strong for your children is a hard line to walk. Many parents make the mistake of trying to put their emotions on hold in order to appear strong for their kids. This is a mistake. The best way to help your children through this difficult time is to take good care of your own emotions.

By Drew Edwards, EdD
Source: Rosenheim, E., Riecher, R. (1985) Informing children about a parent’s terminal illness. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 26(6):995–8; Christ, G.H., Christ, A.E. (2006) Current approaches to helping children cope with a parent’s terminal illness. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 56(4):197–212.

Summary

  • Ask the child what she understands about the illness.
  • Let the child know that he can talk with you at any time.

There are few things in life more heart-wrenching than talking with a child about a parent’s terminal illness. It is not something that a parent can ever really prepare for. As a result, many avoid the subject and delay the initial conversation. It’s not hard to understand why parents do this.

The subject of death is frightening and a cause of great distress to children, so it is easy to think that what the child doesn’t know won’t hurt him.

In fact, it can be more harmful for the child to feel the undercurrents of stress, sadness, secrecy and anxiety within his family without being included in what is happening. Kids have amazing imaginations and, in the absence of truth, will piece together disparate observations and feelings. They will create scenarios or fantasies that are wrought with fear, misconception or denial.

In addition, children depend on their parents to bring security and order into their lives and to help them understand how life works. Parents must not shy away from their role as teacher and comforter—even in difficult times.

The initial conversation

Before you sit down to talk with a child, have a general sense of what you want to say and how you are going to say it. Anticipate the questions she might ask and also what her emotional response may be. Don’t be surprised if the initial conversation is much briefer than you predicted.

A good way to begin this conversation is to ask the child what she senses or understands about her parent’s illness. Allow the child to speak freely and don’t correct her until she has finished her thoughts. Remember that this conversation will set the standard for future conversations you will need to have, so handle her misconceptions gently.

Medical details, times and dates are usually not as important as your ability to listen and comfort. Talk to a child in a calm and gentle way, and resist the temptation to give too much information. Most pre-adolescent children are satisfied with basic information.

Watch your child’s nonverbal communication and note any confusion or distress. Let your child express feelings freely. It is OK for you to express your sadness to the degree that you don’t lose control. Your child needs to see that you are also hurting, but he must also see that you have enough control to take care of him and yourself. Lastly, let him know that he can talk with you about anything at any time.

Your child’s emotional response

Children grieve in many ways, depending on their temperament, age and perception of support. A child may express sadness outwardly through crying or sobbing, or inwardly by withdrawal and quietness.  Emotional pain is also expressed as physical or behavioral changes such as poor sleeping or eating patterns, loss of concentration, or physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches. Older children and teens may lash out in anger as a way of dealing with their pain.

There is really no nice way for a child to deal with the loss of a parent. It is a life-changing event that he will never forget.

An emotional balancing act

Dealing with the loss of one’s mate is devastating, but even more so when children are involved. Coping with your own grief while trying to be strong for your children is a hard line to walk. Many parents make the mistake of trying to put their emotions on hold in order to appear strong for their kids. This is a mistake. The best way to help your children through this difficult time is to take good care of your own emotions.

By Drew Edwards, EdD
Source: Rosenheim, E., Riecher, R. (1985) Informing children about a parent’s terminal illness. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 26(6):995–8; Christ, G.H., Christ, A.E. (2006) Current approaches to helping children cope with a parent’s terminal illness. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 56(4):197–212.

Summary

  • Ask the child what she understands about the illness.
  • Let the child know that he can talk with you at any time.

There are few things in life more heart-wrenching than talking with a child about a parent’s terminal illness. It is not something that a parent can ever really prepare for. As a result, many avoid the subject and delay the initial conversation. It’s not hard to understand why parents do this.

The subject of death is frightening and a cause of great distress to children, so it is easy to think that what the child doesn’t know won’t hurt him.

In fact, it can be more harmful for the child to feel the undercurrents of stress, sadness, secrecy and anxiety within his family without being included in what is happening. Kids have amazing imaginations and, in the absence of truth, will piece together disparate observations and feelings. They will create scenarios or fantasies that are wrought with fear, misconception or denial.

In addition, children depend on their parents to bring security and order into their lives and to help them understand how life works. Parents must not shy away from their role as teacher and comforter—even in difficult times.

The initial conversation

Before you sit down to talk with a child, have a general sense of what you want to say and how you are going to say it. Anticipate the questions she might ask and also what her emotional response may be. Don’t be surprised if the initial conversation is much briefer than you predicted.

A good way to begin this conversation is to ask the child what she senses or understands about her parent’s illness. Allow the child to speak freely and don’t correct her until she has finished her thoughts. Remember that this conversation will set the standard for future conversations you will need to have, so handle her misconceptions gently.

Medical details, times and dates are usually not as important as your ability to listen and comfort. Talk to a child in a calm and gentle way, and resist the temptation to give too much information. Most pre-adolescent children are satisfied with basic information.

Watch your child’s nonverbal communication and note any confusion or distress. Let your child express feelings freely. It is OK for you to express your sadness to the degree that you don’t lose control. Your child needs to see that you are also hurting, but he must also see that you have enough control to take care of him and yourself. Lastly, let him know that he can talk with you about anything at any time.

Your child’s emotional response

Children grieve in many ways, depending on their temperament, age and perception of support. A child may express sadness outwardly through crying or sobbing, or inwardly by withdrawal and quietness.  Emotional pain is also expressed as physical or behavioral changes such as poor sleeping or eating patterns, loss of concentration, or physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches. Older children and teens may lash out in anger as a way of dealing with their pain.

There is really no nice way for a child to deal with the loss of a parent. It is a life-changing event that he will never forget.

An emotional balancing act

Dealing with the loss of one’s mate is devastating, but even more so when children are involved. Coping with your own grief while trying to be strong for your children is a hard line to walk. Many parents make the mistake of trying to put their emotions on hold in order to appear strong for their kids. This is a mistake. The best way to help your children through this difficult time is to take good care of your own emotions.

By Drew Edwards, EdD
Source: Rosenheim, E., Riecher, R. (1985) Informing children about a parent’s terminal illness. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 26(6):995–8; Christ, G.H., Christ, A.E. (2006) Current approaches to helping children cope with a parent’s terminal illness. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 56(4):197–212.

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