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Communicating with your Children

By Wade Iwata
Thursday, January 26, 2012

Being a pediatric oncology social worker, I recognize the difficulty and struggle associated with openly talking to children about illness, side effects, and treatments.  For some parents the struggle is too much and they avoid talking to their children, leaving a young child’s wonderful imagination to run wild.  I was recently talking to a young adult brain tumor survivor who had parents that openly communicated with her about her illness, however, not knowing what was involved with the treatments, her one concern was “how will they keep my head together?”  As a young girl her conclusion was super glue…the doctors must use super glue to keep her head from falling apart after the surgery and removal of the stitches. Again, her parents had done a great job of communicating with her and informing her of most things she will face;  however no matter how much we prepare children, their imaginations go places adults would not ever imagine.  So what can we do to help children understand illness in a way that is effective, appropriate, and limits the confusing and sometimes scary conclusions children come up with.  

Here are some tips on how to effectively communicate with your children about an illness.

Tell your children about the diagnosis.  Children are very perceptive to changes in their surroundings and are able to sense something has changed based on your reactions.  Being open and honest with them helps to model good communication and helps children feel comfortable asking questions.

Use correct terminology.  When telling your children about the diagnosis, explain what the illness is.  If a child has a brain tumor, call it a brain tumor, if it happens to be cancer, call it cancer.  Many parents feel these words are too frightening for children.  However serious the illness is, it is often less scary for children to have a concrete understanding of the situation rather than being left to their own imaginations. 

Assure children that nothing they did caused illness.  Children have extremely active imaginations and believe in “magical thinking”…that is the ability to think something and it happens.  This is also important to talk with siblings about.  Also, assure siblings that they cannot catch a brain tumor from their sibling.  Children will associate a brain tumor with other illnesses such as colds and the flu.  By using the correct terminology and explaining the difference it will help to calm anxieties.

Provide them with your hopes for the situation.  One of the greatest barriers to a parent talking with their children about illness is that one of the children will ask if the patient is going to die.  Understandably many parents fear this question.  It is difficult to know how to answer this when you too are unsure what the outcome will be.  If you are faced with this situation, it is good to give your best understanding of the situation.   You might say “The doctors are doing everything they can to stop the tumor” or “I don’t know, but I believe we are doing everything we can to help your brother”. 

Ask them if they have any questions.  While they may not have any questions at the time when you ask, by asking this question it assures them that it is okay to talk about the illness.    

If you have any questions about talking with your children about illness, please contact us and we would be happy to discuss your concerns.

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