Telling Your Child You’re Seriously Ill

After weeks of endless (and often unkind) speculation, we now know: Princess Kate has cancer. She explains that she and Prince William chose not to go public immediately because they needed to figure out how to tell their kids. They wanted to find appropriate words to explain her illness and reassure them that their mum would be okay. They also wanted to wait until the children were on a school break so their family would have more privacy when the media frenzy began.

Serious illness generates many emotions. For parents and caregivers, some of those feelings are wrapped up in concern for how children will cope when they hear the news. It can be tempting to try and hide the situation. But children are astute at sensing when something is wrong, so experts believe it is best to share the diagnosis.

For children (and adults), having information is better than wondering why things seem off. Provide basic facts about your illness: its type (simplified as just ‘cancer’ or ‘lung disease’ for younger kids), treatments you will receive, and likely side effects of those treatments. For example: I have leukemia, a kind of cancer in my blood. It means a lot of the white blood cells in my body aren’t working properly. A team of doctors and nurses are going to help me get better. They will give me special x-rays and drugs that fight cancer. I may feel nauseous and really tired after the treatments, but they have ways to help with that.

It’s normal for children to wonder how your illness will affect them. Talk about what will change and what will stay the same in your household routines. You might say: I may not be able to drive carpool, but the other parents will make sure you get to school and back home every day. Or you might explain that food smells make your stomach feel sick, so other people are going to help with cooking or bring meals during treatment weeks.

It’s also normal for kids to have a lot of questions. Answer their questions as honestly as you can. If you don’t know something, tell them you will ask your doctor and get back to them. Or suggest that you try looking up the answer together. If they want to know how you are feeling, share the tough emotions as well as the positive ones. For example: I’m feeling sad today because I wanted to go to the park with you and I am too tired to get out of bed.

Model healthy ways of coping with this challenge. As with other life situations, this is an opportunity to teach children how to manage anxiety, fear, and frustration. If you participate in a support group, share how talking with other people who are sick helps you feel less scared. If you feel discouraged after a medical appointment, explain, I had a stressful meeting with my care team and need to do something to help me calm down. Want to listen to some relaxing music together? This kind of approach even has a bonus: when you invite your child to be part of your coping team, you help them see that they have something positive to contribute in this scary situation.



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