6 Tips for Talking to Children about Illness

All children get sick at one point or another. If your child comes down with a cold or the stomach flu, it’s pretty easy to explain what’s going on – and that it’s going to get better.  But what if your child’s condition is more complicated than that, a matter of diabetes, epilepsy or asthma?  This kind of illness will be more challenging to treat and can even last a lifetime.  For cases like this, communicating with your child about their illness is not only more complicated, it is much more important. And it can cause a real challenges for even the most prepared of parents.  

Here are some tips to weather this storm.

Keep the Language Simple….

As hard as it can be, make sure that you keep the language simple when you are talking to their child about their illness, especially if they are very young.  As hard as it can be to explain a concept like “blood sugar” to a diabetic child or “lung function” to one that has asthma, trying to use words that your child can understand and are at their vocabulary/education level.  If you are unsure how to approach this, a great website to look at is KidsHealth, which explains medical conditions to kids in terms they can understand.   It is a great supplement to more traditional ways of learning about healthcare.

…but Build on Knowledge as They Get Older

Be prepared that this conversation is not going to be a “one and done” thing, but an ongoing dialogue that you will have with your child throughout the years.  As they get older and have more questions about their condition, you can build on the information that they know already in age-appropriate terms.  This will help them come to terms with their condition gradually as they get older and can hopefully incorporate it as part of their everyday lives.

Make Use of Your Pediatrician and Health Care Team

Don’t feel like you have to go this alone.  Make use of your pediatrician – and other members of the health care team, such as nurses and even social workers or therapists if needed – to make sure that you have the support you need to help your child live the healthiest life possible.  Keep communication lines open and don’t be afraid to ask questions and to schedule appointments regularly in order to monitor your child’s progress and to try and prevent complications before they happen.  When you are a parent of a chronically ill child, being proactive about care can become incredibly important.

Use Stories to Help Make Illustrate Your Point

Sometimes, all the scientific terms in the world do not help you to explain something complicated to your child as a well-written story with characters and situations your child can related to.  A great series of stories for this is Health Stories for Kids, a set of fictional stories about kids dealing with a variety of health problems, everything from epilepsy, asthma, diabetes, obsessive-compulsive disorder and obesity.  These stories are helpful because they are full of kids who your child can relate to and it can help them to cope with the realities of their diagnosis.

Teach them Self-Care as Soon as Possible

If your child has a lifelong condition such as diabetes or asthma, your instinct as a parent is likely going to be to protect and do as much as you can for them to keep them safe.  However, as your child grows, you must let them start caring for themselves in age-appropriate ways.  If, for instance, your child has asthma, the sooner that they learn to use their inhaler and recognize the signs and symptoms of an asthma attack, the better off they will be.  

While you don’t want to teach them too much too quickly, it is important to realize that they will have to take over their own care as they become teenagers and adults and that the sooner they can begin this journey, the better.  This will give them a feeling of empowerment and self-efficacy that they will need to cultivate in order to stay healthy.

Reach out to Other Families

It is also a good idea to consider reaching out to other families who are in a similar situation, such as families who have epileptic children.  Ask your doctor about any support groups that are available in the area so that you – and your child – can talk about the challenges of living with a certain condition and to swap advice and learn about how to deal day-to-day with health issues and challenges. It can make both you and your child feel less lonely or isolated if you have others in a similar situation to talk to.

Having a child with a chronic illness is difficult and can make the everyday challenges of parenting even harder.  But a combination of these tips can make parenting easier – and can also improve your child’s chances of staying healthy and of leading a normal, happy childhood.