Communicating Effectively with Your Kids About Illness and Death
Updated: Jan 22
Dealing with the death or serious illness of a loved one is never easy. It is even more difficult when you are a parent and need to guide your children through these emotionally challenging times. It’s not enough to manage your own feelings of sadness, loss, grief or anxiety. As a parent, you must consider the emotional needs of your children to help each of them deal with many of the same feelings you are also experiencing. This can be one of the most challenging moments of parenting.
When you recognize how your feelings affect you, and you are able to manage your emotions, you may be ready to address how your children are handling their own feelings. This requires some insight, both into your own emotional needs, as well as those of your children. It also helps to be aware of your children’s emotional development and their ability to cope with difficult or confusing emotions. It is vital for parents to learn how to effectively navigate through these tender times.
Do recognize that each child is an individual
Children are unique individuals who develop at different rates. Two children at the same age might have vastly differing abilities to handle emotional stress. Appreciate your children’s interests in family affairs. Some teenagers might be more interested in details, such as knowing if their own lives will be disrupted. Other children might become overly anxious or even obsessed with the health and safety of loved ones. Knowing each child’s needs and coping styles can guide you when deciding what information to share and when.
Do decide what information each child can handle
As a caregiver to someone facing a major illness or death, it is a good idea to gather as much medical information as you can. This will help you provide the most educated care possible. You will probably have more information than your children need to know. Since each child will have different needs regarding this knowledge, as well as differing abilities in processing that data, you as the parent must determine how much information is suitable for each child.
Do manage your emotions
Being a parent means you are responsible for your children’s well-being. To be the best caregiver, you need to keep your feelings in check. If your worries are spilling over, your display of emotion will bring worry to your children. Drowning in your own feelings removes your focus from your children. Do your best to keep your composure around your kids and filter disturbing material away from children listening to your conversation, as some material may be inappropriate or overwhelming.
Do encourage children to ask questions
Rather than share everything you know, it is best to filter your knowledge. Many details are unnecessary and can be quite frightening to children. One of the best ways to decide what information to share is to allow children to ask questions. Start by providing minimal information and asking for questions. Then briefly answer just what your child asks. This helps ensure that you provide just enough information, without overwhelming your children.
Do consider seeking professional help
Professional help might be advisable if you or someone in your family struggles with the situation. Illness or death in the family can certainly cause depression, anxiety or even confusion. To an extent, these feelings are appropriate for a period of time. If a family member can’t shake these feelings, you might consider seeking the help of a professional. Sometimes, parents need emotional support to manage their own feelings, before being able to help their children. Psychological help can provide support, as well as coping strategies, to assist the entire family in dealing with grief, loss, anxiety and moving forward after illness or death strikes the family.
Do not provide too much information
Too much information can be overwhelming to children. Rather than serve to explain a situation, too much information can be frightening or confusing. Children will not benefit from extra knowledge and this may leave more questions than answers. Consider sharing only minimal details. Just because there is information to share does not mean it is a good idea to share it with children. Be judicious when deciding how much information to share — and when it is appropriate to share it. Certain realities might be damaging or troubling to young children, such as suicide or substance abuse. If death is certain to occur, it helps children to have advance notice to help them prepare. You can determine what is appropriate to share with each of your children, and when it makes sense to share it.
Do not fail to guide your kids through the realities of death
Consider what your children will do with the knowledge of the death of a loved one, and how they each will understand the finality of death. What aspects of your religious or spiritual practices might be comforting or useful, and which ones might be frightening? Children under age five or six tend to view the world in magical ways. It is difficult for young children to mentally grasp the permanence of death. Find storybooks to help explain death to young children. Older children also might benefit from reading these books as death is an extraordinarily difficult and emotional reality for all children to process on their own. You can be a guide for your children on their journey through a loved one’s illness and death.
Do not lean on your children for emotional support
Your role as parent is to help support and guide your children, not to burden them. Recognize your emotional needs and seek support for yourself from other sources. Sometimes, it is quite tempting to speak candidly and share with your older children. Even if your teenager expresses interest in supporting you, it is better to limit what you share to what is age appropriate. While it might be tempting to share with older children or teenagers, some information can be distressing and create long-lasting damage. Keep healthy boundaries between what is suitable to share with your children and what might be too much for any child to handle. Make sure you take care of all of your own needs as emotional, physical and spiritual needs tend to heighten when loved ones are ill or dying.
Do not hide obvious information
Common knowledge will not escape your children. If you are spending unusual amounts of time away from home, on the phone or acting differently, your children will notice this on some level. Your child may or may not react to how you are acting, but even young children can sense changes or distress in their parents. Children listen to parents whether we are aware of this or not. Sometimes, they listen purposely and other times, they just overhear what we say. Recognizing that children will pick up on what may be happening, you need to be mindful of what you say and also how you act. Your children will notice your mood — especially if you are unusually sad, anxious or withdrawn. Share some information, so children can gain appropriate insight into the situation.
Do not avoid dealing with death or serious illness
Children are listening to you when you speak, even if they are not a part of your conversation. Since children will pick up on what’s happening in your family, they may have a sense of what is going on — or they might have an exaggerated or incorrect impression. Make it okay for children to speak with you about whatever concerns them by letting them know you are there for each of them and will answer their questions. At times, dealing with death is unexpected. And at such times, it is best to communicate promptly to help assure children of their own safety. Waiting until the last minute to discuss death and dying can rob children of the time it will take to process the pending loss. Your role as parent is to be supportive, while guiding children through their journey through life.
Summary When we as parents must face the painful realities of death and illness, we must first understand our own emotions and manage them. Central to good parenting is the ability to be emotionally supportive of our children. You can help your children cope with their feelings by recognizing the unique needs of each individual child and providing relevant information about the situation.
Provide age appropriate details by listening and responding to each child’s questions. Recognize that children may be aware of what’s going on, so communicate openly, but limit information to what is suitable for each individual child. You can deal with death directly but gently and use resources, such as books, to help children understand death and illness. Find other avenues of support besides leaning on your own children as they need you to support them through emotionally troubling times. You can be enormously helpful to your children in a time of need. It is unnecessary to avoid dealing with death and illness in your family when you learn how to effectively and appropriately communicate information and support to all of your children.