Whoever the patient is, whatever the condition, serious illness deeply affects the whole family. Adults struggle to keep the family functioning amid the physical stress of home care or hospital visits and the emotional stress of medical dilemmas and worry. Kids are upset both by the threat to the loved one and the unrest in the home. Yet parents can go a long way toward helping kids cope, through the way they talk with them about the illness and how they manage it as a family.
Tell the Truth
Whether you tell your kids or not, they’ll know something is going on. Tell your child about the illness in words she can under- stand. Younger children need a smaller dose of the truth, while older ones can handle more medical facts and details. Let your child know what is likely to happen in the course of the illness and treatment. Without making false promises, reassure your child that the doctors are doing everything they can to help the sick person. Don’t be afraid to say, “We don’t know yet,” if that’s the most honest answer to a child’s question.
When a family member is ill, everyone “comes down” with it. Adults will be stressed, worried, and fatigued. Kids may feel upset, neglected, and fearful. The closer the relationship to the sick person, the greater the upset, especially if the sick person lives in your home. Keep routines at home as normal as possible. Children thrive on order and predictability, safety and security.
Let kids be kids
When someone in the family is very sick, roles and responsibilities often change because of the increased demands on the adults. Everyone does need to pitch in, and giving children appropriate responsibilities can help them feel they are making a real contribution. But be wary of allowing your kids to shoulder too much responsibility—even if they seem perfectly willing and capable. Kids need to be kids. Take advantage of friends’ kind offers to help out, and let them take over some of the house- hold chores. Or ask them to take your child to baseball practice or for an outing to the park.
If your ill family member is terminally ill, realize that this may be your child’s first encounter with death. Prepare her by talking about what you think death is like and what one a chance to extend a final blessing or last wish. This can bring comforting closure to the relationship, which will help in the months ahead as your child deals with her grief.