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How to Help a Child Cope with a Parent's Serious Illness

Learn how to help a child cope with a parent's serious illness in this Howcast video about child anxiety issues.


I'm going to talk to you about how to help a child when a parent has a serious illness. I think when a parent is ill, they often first think about their children and not about themselves. They would like to protect them from whatever is going on with them. But the reality is there's ways that you can include and involve your children that actually are better for them and also hopefully, helpful to you.

The first thing is that you need to give them some information. Now, you want to match that information to the age of the child, to what's going on with you and of course, as things change, you want to change the information. Whenever possible, you want to be honest and use the real words because they may be hearing conversations and adults talking. When you keep things a secret, they often think it's something bad, it's their fault and it's their imagination that will take over. You want to be the source of information. You want to make sure you maintain an open dialogue with them and have them feel comfortable coming to you to ask questions.

You also want to reassure them as much as possible and that means reassuring them about their life and what is going to continue. You also want to reassure your children, now again, it may depend on the age as well as your illness. A young child, that's a toddler, certainly a preschooler may need to know that you're going to be around for a long time to take care of them. For an older child, you have to figure out how to balance hope and what your activity and actions are to try to get better. Then, you want to also reassure them about their everyday world. That is telling them what will stay the same. Keep their activities in routine, as normal as possible. That will help them feel more secure and confident in their life and it gives them less to worry about.

Children are different and also they want to be involved with what's going on with you. Some children will want to participate, perhaps at hospital visits or helping you with things, especially if you're limited in what you can do. Other kids really want to just maybe go on about their everyday life. You want to accept all kinds of help. You want to accept whatever kind of involvement your child wants, whether it's a lot or a little.

You want to involve your children in whatever way makes them feel most comfortable because children have a different interest and ability, as well as tolerance for some of this kind of situations. Certainly, when a parent has a serious illness, there can be a village that can be very helpful. You want to make sure, as much as possible, that your children are connected to the people in their life that are comforting and familiar. That means involving school and neighbors and relatives and friends whenever you need to, to keep that child safe in their world and keep it functioning in a way that they're used to, as much as possible.

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