What to tell kids when a loved one is ill or in the hospital

July 3, 2013 Stephanie Wilding, MS, CCLS

When a loved one in the family is in the hospital or dealing with a chronic illness it can be hard to know what to say to the youngest family members.  It’s natural to want to “protect” them by not telling them or talking to them, but chances are the kids already know that something is going on.  An honest conversation can help to ease any misunderstanding they may have. 

Here are some important areas to cover when navigating a discussion about the illness or hospitalization of a loved one:

  • Honesty – Use words and descriptions that are appropriate for their age. If they are older they may ask specific details about the illness.  It’s good to call the diagnosis by name.  They may come back at a later date with other questions or even ask the same questions more than once. 
  • "Can I catch it?" – Children often have the fear that they can “catch” illnesses. They need to know, if in fact it isn’t a contagious disease, that they can not catch the illness from their loved one by being near them, hugging them and visiting with them.  This is particularly important if it is a brother or sister who is ill.
  • "Did I cause this?" – Many times children think they are the cause of hard things happening.  This is normal thinking for their development, but it’s important to reassure them that this illness wasn’t caused by anyone – especially them! 
  • Keeping the connection – Keeping a child’s schedule as regular as possible will help with any stress they may be having.  You may notice them reverting back to old behavior you thought they’d out-grown – wetting the bed, acting out more or seeming to need more attention than normal.  When there is a change, make sure they know the specifics of the plan and are aware of it ahead of time. 
  • Offering them a choice – Children should be given a choice to visit their loved one in the hospital.  Some children may want to visit and some may not.  If a loved one is in the hospital, encouraging your children to make a card, draw a picture of their favorite memory with their loved one, writing a note, picking out a special gift to give or even exchanging teddy bears, helps keep them connected to their loved one and allows them to be involved. 

Talking to your children about a loved one’s hospitalization and illness is never easy, but having a discussion now can help prevent future misunderstandings and includes them in the family process. Parents always know their children best and should keep in mind their own individual personalities when sharing information.

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