Keeping It Real: Conversation tips when a parent is diagnosed with a serious illness

February 10, 2016

No one looks forward to having difficult conversations, especially when they involve children and a parent’s diagnosis of a serious illness. However, sometimes they are not only important to have, but necessary. Having to tell your child that you have been diagnosed with a serious illness such as cancer is not only scary, but it can also be overwhelming and worrisome. Furthermore, there are challenging questions you have to face like, “How should I tell them?” or “How much information should I give them?”

Here is some information about the ways a serious illness diagnosis impacts the entire family unit. Included below are tips for communicating elements of the diagnosis to a child. Heading into challenging conversations with the necessary information can help to ease the stress and anxiety that come when it is time to face these challenging conversations.

A Unified Front – The diagnosis of a serious illness not only impacts the individual, but the family as a whole. Life becomes uncertain, filled with lots of change. As the illness and treatments change, discuss them openly and in an age appropriate way. When appropriate, manage the illness as a family. For example, if a parent loses their hair, discuss together how the family can best support the individual. Some ideas could be having a head shaving party, picking out or designing different hats, or taking lots of photographs.

Bigger Questions, Tougher Answers – As you begin to communicate openly and consistently with your children about the diagnosis and treatment, be prepared for them to ask you many different questions. Sometimes they may make statements that can be surprising and shocking. They may even say things that hurt your feelings. An example may be, “Dad, you look weird without hair.” Respectfully tell your child that the statement hurts your feelings. Remind them of the different changes your body is going through as a result of the treatment, noting that these changes can be strange and will take time to get used to.

It is important to honor your child’s feelings by not immediately telling them they are wrong or to not worry. They are expressing their thoughts and questions to you because they love you, trust you and want you to know what is on their mind.

The Honesty Policy – Clear communication is essential when a family faces a serious illness diagnosis. With the many ups and downs of treatment, make sure everything is explained in a clear and age-appropriate manner. Children are very observant and when things are not explained correctly, they may make up their own explanation. This leads to fear and anxiety. To ease these feelings in your child, be honest about why things are changing and how you can work through them together. Make sure to ask if the child understands after every conversation to ensure that everyone is on the same page.

As a parent, remember to remain a unified family, prepare yourself for tough questions and statements, and to be open and honest with your children in an age appropriate manner. Together, you will be able to navigate down this new road. You will encounter road blocks and speed bumps, but if you tackle them together as a family, you will always continue to move forward. If you are still in need of support contact Tu Nidito, 520-322-9155. We are here to help!

Written By: Brigid Frasquillo, MS, Support Specialist

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