Parenting is already a difficult job; now imagine parenting from your hospital bed – or worse, being so ill you need to rely on someone else to parent your child or children. A hospitalized parent may be separated from their children, perhaps too ill to communicate, and the other parent or family member is too stressed to recognize the children’s needs. Families struggle with separation and uncertainties with illness and hospitalizations, especially with sudden or traumatic medical events.
Parents and family members are often stumped at the best way to talk to kids about such situations. Children can sense when something is going on and overhearing information can lead to misunderstandings or misperceptions. When a loved one is ill it is important to be honest with children and communicate with them at a level they can understand. Taking a moment to talk with your children not only helps them, it may relieve some of your stress. Parents are often surprised at how easy this kind of conversation can be – children usually have some information and are eager to be included.
Three important parts of your conversation should include the following:
- Mom or Dad is seriously ill (or grandparent, etc.) – Talking about an ill parent will not make a child any more upset than they already feel and it presents an opportunity for them to express, to a caring adult, how they are feeling.
- The name of the illness or injury – If a parent has been diagnosed with cancer – it is okay to use the appropriate word. Children don’t often have bad associations with these words. It will also be helpful if they want to share their story with a friend or teacher.
- Your best understanding of what may happen – Explain what you believe will be your hospital course AND how this might affect them, “My doctor wants me to stay in the hospital until my infection has gone and daddy will be home with you” or “I’m planning to stay in the hospital until the end of the week but then I’ll make regular visits at the clinic to get medicine called chemotherapy; you will continue to go to school.”
Ask your child what they want to know, and be open and honest. Use age-appropriate words along with correct terminology to describe the illness. Children will retell your story and if you worry about saying the words yourself, kids pick up on that. You may need to reassure yourself too – people do have strokes and get better. I encourage parents to be hopeful but honest. The worst way children can learn information is overhearing it. Be mindful of what and how you share details of your illness, it might not feel fair to your children if they learn their cousins know more about the illness than they do.
Two – Six year old children need information and reassurance
- Children often think they can cause something bad to happen – reassure that they did not cause this illness or injury. Explain the illness on their level; don’t assume they won’t be affected somehow. A two year old may not understand your illness, but they will know that a parent is not home or there are changes in routines.
- Children often think illnesses can be contagious – reassure that they cannot catch the illness.
- Children will want to know how they will be impacted – explain to them with detail the best you can. Routine is important and equals security to children. Keep children informed of their routine or any changes to their routine.
Six – Twelve year old children may desire detailed information
- In addition to some of the other information, this age group can handle more information, but may get some of their information from peers, media, and online resources.
- Be sure to check in frequently in case they have new questions and concerns.
Teenagers can have a variety of reactions and responses
- Provide lots of detailed information. They want to be treated like adults even if their physical and cognitive changes interfere with producing very mature, adult-like behavior.
- Make sure they have someone outside the immediate family to talk to on a regular basis, but discuss privacy issues, in case you want your personal info kept within the family.
- Developmentally, teens are working on separating and being their own person. This can be challenging since they want to spend time with friends but feel pressure (internal and external) to be home with an ill parent.
How to Help Children Through a Parent’s Serious Illness (Kathleen McCue, 1994)
Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child When a Parent is Sick (Paula Rauch and Anna Muriel, 2006)