Tackling Tough Talks: Talking To Young Children About Caregiving

Talking to children about caregiving

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Talking to young children about caregiving

When a loved one in your family has been diagnosed with a serious illness, it certainly impacts every member of the family. It can be difficult to come to terms with reality; the situation becomes all the more difficult when the children need to be told about reality. Many of us might think that keeping the children away from the news by not telling them, is in a way protecting them from mental trauma. However, all of us must embrace the fact that young children are extremely emotional about their family members and very well understand when a loved one in the family falls sick. Therefore, not telling them, or hiding the truth from them, would certainly be of no help.

Why does the child need to know about the illness of a loved one?

Children are extremely emotional and anxious beings. Left to us, we would always want to shield our children from bad and unwanted news. However, nowadays children are pretty intelligent and would immediately pick up from our physical cues and disrupt routines that something is not right at home. So, as a parent or a guardian of young children, it becomes our duty to tell them the truth. Telling the truth will help the child in accepting the reality and also will help them to grieve healthily later on.

Remember, your child needs simple and honest answers to his questions. Reassure your child that he is safe and will be well taken care of. He doesn’t need to worry, as all possible efforts are being made to make the loved one feel better and healthy. Make clear and accurate conversations with them, so that they are not confused about the illness of the loved one.

However, if the parent happens to be seriously ill, then the school-going kid, may in some way begin blaming himself for the condition. He may start thinking that for some reason he is responsible for the condition of the parent. At that point, you need to reassure the child that all this is irrational thinking and that he is innocent and has nothing to do with the illness of the parent. If you fail to make him understand this fact, and the child continues to blame himself for the condition, then the child may exhibit disruptive behavior at school and may even withdraw himself from family and friends. The child would also start getting nightmares and gradually may fall ill.

How to talk to the child about the severe illness?

While approaching such a sensitive topic with the child is difficult, letting them know about the illness of the loved one is extremely essential. The following tips would certainly help you to communicate with your child effectively.

  • Take into consideration the developmental stage of your child: Not just the age, but the developmental stage of your child is equally important when you think of striking up a conversation with your child regarding the illness of a loved one. This is because a very young child will not be able to process a large amount of information at once. Taking into consideration the emotional development of your child will help you in adapting different approaches to make your child understand. It is always easy to answer their questions in stages rather than making them understand all that is happening in one go.
  • Planning: Planning ahead saves a lot of confusion, and enables healthy communication between you and your child. It would be better if you could involve your parenting partner in the discussion as well. This, if both of you talk to the child together, then it would be easier for the child to understand and process the information. Always choose a time, when your child is less distracted. Remember, you also need to be free and give your child undivided attention, to answer his queries.
  • Keep the conversation easy to understand: For young children, it is necessary to keep the conversation very easy to understand. The clearer your conversation, the lesser would be the confusion. Don’t hesitate to use words like death or dying. As far as possible, avoid confusing phrases like, ‘will be going far away’, ‘in deep sleep’, etc. All the information should be kept as short as possible. For example, “Uncle Sam, is in the hospital, as he is unwell and doctors are trying their best to make him well. Until Uncle Sam is healthy again, he would have to stay in the hospital. We can go and meet him there.” You can even name the disease the loved one is suffering from, to clear all the doubts.
  • Give the child ample time to process the information: When you are done communicating about the sick family member, you need to encourage your child to ask questions, if they have any. They may keep repeating the same questions, you need to respond with the same answer, which will help in building their trust.
    Depending on the age of the child, you may also want to share your feelings with him. You can tell them how you feel about the entire issue and that will help the child open up about their feelings as well. You may also want your child to know, that illness in the family can bring about changes in their daily routine and also make them understand how they can help in such challenging times.
  • Prepare yourself for any kind of reaction: Once you have let the children know of the existing condition of the loved one, you need to prepare yourself for any kind of reaction from them. The child may throw tantrums, get upset, put up a fight at school, or even withdraw himself socially. All these reactions are pretty much expected from them. In some cases, the child may take time to react, all depends on the time the child would take to process the information. Reactions can get delayed, and it may vary from one day to another. In such cases, it is better to give your child their space and time, and you are required to communicate and check with them regularly. You can give updates about the illness and also communicate with them more frequently and see if they have any new questions for you.
  • Don’t shy away from asking for help: When you find, that your child is not coping, then it is always advisable to ask for help. You can contact your pediatrician, a mental health specialist, a social worker, or even people from your faith community. As it is truly said, that it takes a village to raise a child, and therefore, seeking help is necessary, when your child is going through such a difficult phase.

Answer their curiosity

It is extremely necessary to answer the curiosity of your child. It is so possible, that the child may ask, whether the loved one who is severely ill, would die. In such situations, it is always better to tell the truth. Take this as a cue, and if death is a possibility, it’s better to answer in the affirmative. Take note of the following tips.

  • If the doctors have said, that your loved one would not be able to pull through, then it is always better to keep your child prepared. However, when you answer in the affirmative, make sure you add a positive perspective to the truth you have shared. Tell them that, death is a reality and needs to be accepted, but life has to move on.
  • Never lie to your child and make any kind of promises that you would not be able to fulfill.
  • Take one day as it comes. Help your child accept the fact and respond to all his questions. He may ask you questions like – What if I fall sick? What if I catch the disease? Who will love me? Who will pamper me? Have I done something wrong to make this disease happen? Am I responsible for what is happening? It is pretty natural for your child to bombard you with questions. Make it a point to answer all their queries. The child may ask the same question several times, and you need to keep repeating the same answer each time until your child is convinced. Be patient with them, as your child is struggling to register the hard facts of life.
  • Make your child understand that worrying about death will certainly not prevent it from happening. But worrying, would certainly not allow you to live your present. So, it is best to live each moment and make happy memories with your loved one.

Ways to help children process the information

Young children are an integral part of every family. Parents and caregivers have an important role to play in the behavioral and moral development of young children. Keeping the children posted about the serious illness of the loved one and helping them understand the information and nature of the problem, would go a long way in helping them process the information.

  • While explaining about the disease, it is necessary to keep the information as crisp as possible. If required, use words like stroke, heart disease, surgery, chemotherapy, and cancer. Do not confuse the child with half and incorrect information. This would not help in any way. Always provide the correct information, but in a way that is easier for them to process.
  • Understand that young children take their own time to process the information. We need to honor this fact and give them ample time for this. In this process, they keep asking you the same question over and over again. Be patient, and answer all their queries calmly. If you do not know the answer to some question, it is okay to say, I don’t know.
  • If the disease your loved one is suffering from, is not contagious, then you can offer your child to visit the hospital to meet their loved one. However, if the disease is contagious, explain why they are not allowed to visit the hospital.
  • Attempt to follow the routine of your child and try not to disrupt their daily routine. Also, allow your child to resume normal activities.
  • Keep the child posted about the progression of the disease of the loved one.
  • Have open and honest communication with your child, and allow them to help you in whatever little ways they can.
  • If necessary, take the help of daycare providers, who can watch over your child, while you get busy taking care of your loved one. You can even involve the teachers and school counselors who can also help make the child understand about the change in the family situation.
  • Be patient with your child, when he wishes to act younger. It may so happen, that your child may want to go back to his past behaviors which he had already stopped. For example, wanting to have pacifiers while sleeping, wanting to co-sleep with you, or the need to held while walking, instead of walking independently. All these indicate that your child is struggling to process the information and requires support in this process. Patience is the key in such cases, and you can contact his pediatrician if required.

Lastly, make time for your child and communicate with them as much as possible. Help them to remain cheerful and also allow them to participate in caregiving responsibilities.


Children often get emotionally attached to their grandparents or other members of the extended family. When a loved one is diagnosed with a severe illness or is dying, it becomes extremely difficult to come to terms with the reality. The situation becomes all the more complex when children are involved. In such situations, it is always best to be honest and clear with the children. Understanding the gravity of the situation and picking up the best possible approach is what is expected from the parents or guardians of young children. Giving proper and correct knowledge to the children is always appreciated. Involving the young children in the caregiving process of the loved one would also help them to come to terms with the harsh reality. Learning to face the harsh realities of life gracefully, makes one mature enough to handle things the right way. I am here to help

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