Parent holds a talk bubble as kids contribute to her statements

How to Talk to Kids About Illness

Creating a good relationship with our nieces and nephews has been so important to me and my husband. One of the ways we have helped to foster that healthy relationship is by explaining to them what cystic fibrosis is from an early age.

My husband and I don’t have any children, but we have so many nieces and nephews! We love being involved in their lives in whatever ways we can. Each relationship looks different. Our nieces and nephew who live in town have more time with us than those who live in other states.

It has felt uncomfortable at times, but we know how it important it is for everyone. As they get older, they learn more and understand more. Why did we talk to our nieces and nephews about illness? And how did we introduce illness to our nieces and nephews at a young age? I will explain that to you today!

Reasons to talk to kids about illness

Explaining a serious illness to children may feel overwhelming.1 It is important to make sure that the children in your life are aware of a family member’s illness. No matter how hard adults may try to keep information quiet and family routines the same, kids will often overhear conversations.1 They will pick up on your non-verbal cues and realize something is wrong, but they may not be able to figure it out.

That lack of knowledge can fill their lives with uncertainty and fear.1 It will probably be difficult for both the adult and child to have a conversation about a sick family member but doing so will help.

Talking about hard things can open lines of communication and promote a safe space for the child to process their feelings.

How to talk to kids about illness

Once you have had a little bit of time to process a family member’s diagnosis, it will soon be time to talk to the children in your life. How do you do that? When should the conversation happen? Some of these questions will look different for you depending on who is ill, when they were diagnosed, and if they live with you.1

The first thing to do is to plan the conversation. Take time to think about when to talk with the kids. For example, would you prefer to talk to them at dinner or breakfast? Or would bedtime be better with your schedule?

Starting the conversation is next. For young children, it is best to keep the explanation simple. As they age, they can learn more, such as the name of the illness, how they might be able to help, changes that might need to happen, and that it isn’t contagious.1

After telling them about their family member’s diagnosis, be sure to give children the time to process. Processing is another way of saying, “I need time to think.” It can look like different things such as crying, talking, playing, or sitting in silence. Each child can react differently, and it is important to respect how they process the news.

How to offer support

By now you’ve planned the conversation, had a chat about illness, and given them time to think about what that means. What do you do now? Now it is time to continue offering support.

Learning about a sick family member can bring up a lot of emotions. Children can have strong feelings and sometimes additional support is needed. It is important to know that children can’t always label their feelings and emotions so instead of telling you how they feel they might express how they feel through their actions.1

In addition to support, find ways for your child to help if they want to help.  For example, this could be writing cards, helping push a wheelchair, or carrying a bag. This allows children to contribute feel helpful, which in turn gives them some control over the situation.

Lastly, keep as many routines as possible.1 If it is possible, let them know of changes to their routine. For example, let your child know if you can't pick up them up from school like usual. It will help increase communication. In addition, it will also let them know that they aren’t being forgotten. Emergencies happen so this isn't always possible, but communicating with children and letting them know ahead of time can remove a lot of confusion.

Children are so smart and so perceptive. They pick up on the smallest changes in their lives. Learning of a sick family member can be overwhelming and scary, but by talking with them about it you can relieve their confusion and stress. Remember that they are experiencing similar emotions to you but may not have the skills to cope with them. Creating a safe space to talk and feel can help children feel connected to the family and know they are not alone.

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