Talking with Your Children about Serious Illness


By Jeffrey Wolfish, LGPC

Child psychologist with a little girlKids learn about people with severe illness from friends at school, neighbors, and synagogue. Closer to home children often become aware of a family member or classmate suffering from a life-threatening illness. This reality is difficult for people at any age, but can be especially upsetting for young children. Parents of young children may feel it is necessary to shield their children from hearing such news. If that is even possible, is it the best decision? How should parents speak to their child about terminal illness and death?

Once a child learns about a classmate, friend or relative with a serious illness, it is important for parents to recognize the impact the event has had on the child. Sometimes, it may be a babysitter, day care provider or teacher who notices that something seems “off” with your child. If that is the case, be open to hearing their concerns. Typically, children may display their reactions in the following ways:

  • Cognitions (thoughts): Be attentive to what your child is thinking – he or she may think this will happen to him or her especially if it is a friend, someone close in age, who is ill.
  • Emotions (feelings): Be on the lookout for signs that your child seems sad or anxious when thinking of a sick person or seeing someone look frail.
  • Behaviors (actions): Be aware of a change in behavior that is not the typical pattern of how your child usually acts at home or school.
  • Physiological (bodily reactions): Be alert for complaints of head or stomach pains, and notice disturbed sleep habits or unusual fatigue.

Parents and caregivers are encouraged to listen for concerns and answer any questions honestly and age-appropriately. Young children can easily become confused about severe illness and it is important for them to acquire a better understanding. While having these discussions with children is quite challenging, there are methods that can be implemented. Keep in mind that there may not be a good answer for every situation that arises. Parents and caregivers are strongly encouraged to seek professional guidance when needed. There are also things you can do.

Here are some recommendations:

  • Have discussions with your children. Be calm and don’t be afraid; your child will follow your lead.
  • Set aside time with your child without distractions (no TV, no phones, no babies crying…you get the picture) so you can listen carefully to what he is saying.
  • Identify what your child has already heard and may know; make sure she has the full story because sometimes they get misinformation or hear false rumors or just misunderstand what was said.
  • Tell your child that it’s okay to be scared and natural to worry, but be reassuring by explaining that there is no reason to believe it will happen to him, you or another relative.
  • Be available to listen to your child’s worries and answer questions with honesty but in language he or she can understand. It is understandable that a parent or caregiver may not want to discuss such topics. It is scary for adults, too.
  • Do something proactive! Look for ways to give purpose to a child’s concern and natural desire to want to “make it all better.” Cook and deliver meals to the family, offer to run errands or help with chores, babysit or take the other family’s children out for a special day.

By keeping an open line of communication with your children, you’ll learn what they are thinking and feeling. Although there are many things you can’t change or control, we all have the power to be there for the people we care about most.

jeffreywolfishBy Jeffrey Wolfish, LGPC, JCS Therapist

Questions about parenting? Send an email to parenttalk@jcsbaltimore.org. For more information on parenting click here or call 410-466-9200.

You may also want to read our Parent Talk blog “Talking with Children about Death.”

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