How to tell children a parent is seriously ill

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When a parent learns he or she is seriously ill, one of the first challenges is how to tell the kids. Good Morning America parenting contributor and author Ann Pleshette Murphy has some good advice for any family dealing with a parent's serious illness.

How to tell children a parent is seriously ill

Helping young children cope

  • Young children don't usually need a lot of information. For example, if you are helping your child cope with a parent's cancer diagnosis, you may tell her that the parent has cancer, what kind of cancer it is and where it is. Let her know that her life won't be affected in a dramatic way at first.
  • Let your child know that many kinds of cancer are treatable and not an automatic death sentence. Let him know you're doing everything you can and that the doctor says you'll be able to take medicine to get better, if that is the case.
  • One way to help children cope with a parent's illness is to maintain their routines as much as possible -- that's what makes them feel safe.
  • Younger children often feel they may have caused the illness. Reassure them that they haven't, and also that what you have is not contagious. Small children are often very empathic and really want to help.

Helping teenagers cope

  • Sometimes teenagers are so focused on their own lives, you have to ask them explicitly for help.
  • Teenagers may be angry and resentful that the parent's illness is going to impact their lives.
  • Try not to be angry if they seem not to care as much as you think they should -- it may be their way of coping with the parent's illness.
  • Empower them to have a role in the process.
Coping with a parent's terminal illness
  • If the illness progresses and the parent may not recover, use the traditions, religious practices, and/or values that your family is familiar with to talk about the situation.
  • It's very important to be honest with your kids. They pick up on secrets.
  • When children ask a question, take your cues from them. Small ones may not want to know too much. When they ask a question about this (or any tough subject), it's a good idea to ask, "What do you think is the answer to that question?" to get a good sense of what they're thinking the situation is.
meet theexpert
  • Ann Pleshette

    Ann Pleshette Parenting Contributor, Good Morning America, ABC Ann Pleshette Murphy has been the Parenting Contributor for Good Morning America since November 1998, and her “American Family” segments are a recurring feature on GMA. Murphy is the author of The 7 Stages of Motherhood: Loving Your Life Without Losing Your Mind (Anchor Books) and travels the country speaking to mothers’ groups about such themes as striking a balance between work and family, wrestling with guilt and setting loving limits. She was Editor-in-Chief of Parents magazine from 19 more about this expert »

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