When a serious illness or death happens within the family, the entire family is affected, children included. As a parent, watching our children experience negative life events can leave us feeling helpless. While it is natural to want to shield children from these experiences, it is not the healthiest way to help. Children, regardless of their age, pick up on more than you may realize. They have great imaginations and can easily imagine the situation being worse than it really is. By listening and talking with children, you can help them understand the situation and gain the skills they need to weather the storm of this experience and lay the foundation for coping with future life stressors.
Below is a guide to help you navigate a loved one diagnosed with a serious illness or death. Just as each life event differs, so are the child and family experiencing it, so remember, some of this will be helpful, and some won’t be.
Common Questions From Children
Did I cause it?
Can I catch it?
Will I die?
Will you die?
Why do people die?
Could I cure it?
Who is going to take care of me?
How can I stay connected to them?
Changes in school performance. For—poor grades.
Excessive worry or anxiety. For example—refusing to go to sleep, go to school or attend regular activities.
Frequent outbursts of anger, including inappropriate or destructiveness.
Absences of emotions.
Not talking about their loved one.
Hyperactivity, restless or overactive.
Dependency, clingy and over-dependent on parent (s).
Thoughts of death, either self or others.
Not sharing their feelings, as they know their parent (s) are already under great stress.
Sleep disturbances or nightmares.
Inappropriate behaviours such as stealing, promiscuity, vandalism, illegal behaviour, and alcohol or drug use.
Increased complaints about physical ailments such as stomachaches and headaches.
Changes in eating habits.
Feelings of guilt.
Regression (reverting to behaviours previously given up, such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting)
How to Help
Every person needs one person to confide in, to be their constant. Take the time to listen, explain, and offer unconditional love. This can help lower the child’s anxiety.
Understand their developmental age level to help support them fully.
Help them with self-regulation. When a child loses a parent, they also lose the person who often helped them to regulate.
Encourage communication. This can help prevent misconceptions about the situation and learn how your child is really feeling.
Use age-appropriate language.
Be honest about the disease and prognosis. Children have active imaginations and may create a worse scenario than what is really happening.
Be specific about the illness. Use the names of the disease instead of saying “they are sick,” as in the future, they may associate someone saying they are sick (even with a cold) with dying.
Avoid euphemisms such as “passed away” or “they are sleeping.” This can be frightening. For example—children may fear falling asleep as they think they may not wake up like their loved one.
It is okay to respond with “I don’t know” and that you will try to find an answer. Sometimes there is no answer, and it is okay to share that.
Be aware that they may try to protect you by not sharing.
Be sensitive to their feelings. Don’t chastise them for expressing their emotions and avoid phrases such as “toughen up,” or “you are the man/woman of the family now,” or “be a big kid.”
Give simple explanations. Don’t add unnecessary details or give long, drawn-out explanations. Keeping answers short and simple helps them absorb the information.
Ask what they understand after explaining. This will help you learn what they heard and what they understand.
Be honest. We often are uncomfortable talking about these tough subjects, but being honest is essential. If they ask about you or themselves dying, be honest “yes, one day I/you will die.” Let them know that adults normally live for a long time and that there will always be someone to take care of them.
Encourage questions and for them to share their feelings. Let them know their feelings (good ones and bad ones) are all okay.
Remember that children oscillate between feelings. They will take in the information, go off and play (process), and come back. Some people view children playing as avoidant. However, it is entirely normal. Sometimes they will ask the same questions repeatedly. Sometimes to help understand further, sometimes because the topic is too hard to comprehend.
Let them know how you feel and that it is okay, too. We all have feelings. You can be an outstanding role model!
Give them a voice in visiting their loved one, whether it is in a hospital, hospice or funeral home.
Allow the child to take part in meaningful ways, in either the loved one’s care or in their memorial.
Keep their schedules and boundaries as close to normal as possible. Routine helps calm the nervous system.
Provide affection, care, and supportive listening. Listen attentively and respect their view.
Seek support through family, friends, community, healthcare providers, counsellors, or support groups.
Finally, understanding your child’s developmental age and applying stage-specific strategies can help further. Please contact me for a more in-depth guide that includes developmental stages.